Hardeep Matharu explores the findings of a new report suggesting that the Labour Party must go beyond economic and social concerns and engage with people’s feelings about their identity.
The Labour Party has no hope of winning power in the UK again if it continues to go out of its way to alienate voters who feel they have an “English” identity and want this to be recognised, according to a new report.
Labour has not won the popular vote in England since 2001 and the Conservatives’ majority in the 2019 General Election was won in constituencies, outside the major cities, where voters are more likely to see themselves as English than British – many of these voters also support Brexit, a report by the English Labour Network, How Labour Lost England, published last week says.
The report claims that, in the 2019 General Election, the party made no attempt to address English voters and that “Labour’s long-standing and deepening crisis” in its relationship with them must be addressed if it wants to find a way back into government.
It cites YouGov polls conducted towards the end of the 2015, 2017 and 2019 General Elections, which show that the percentage of Labour voters surveyed who feel ‘more British than English’ increased from 36% in 2015 to 44% in 2019; while Conservative voters surveyed who feel ‘more English than British’ rose from 33% in 2015 to 40% in 2019.
Part of this lies in the progressive, liberal and left family vacating the territory to do with nationhood, to do with patriotism, to do with pride in who you are.David Lammy MP
Between 2015-2019, the Conservative share of the vote in England increased from 40.9% to 47.2%, with the report finding that “the Conservative lead over Labour has been achieved by extending their support amongst the ‘more English than British’” and that “for many years the Labour Party has gone out of its way to alienate voters who do emphasise their English identity”.
The voters Labour has lost are patriotic and “Labour does not project itself as a patriotic party”, the report says. These voters identify English issues which are distinct from those of the Union as a whole; favour English MPs making English laws in Westminster; and “want political parties to stand up for English interests within the Union”.
The English Labour Network believes that Labour must take the lead in creating an “inclusive English identity open to all living in England”, as well as discussing how English laws should be made and how power and resources could be devolved within England.
The importance of national identity in how people vote is a “21st Century phenomenon,” according to the report.
“National identities reflect world views,” it says. “They comprise the ideas we have of ‘who we are’ and ‘what we stand for’; they may contain ‘explanations’ of why we experience the world in the way we do.
“The evidence suggests that this political Englishness has emerged as the identity of people who tend to live in places that have seen the worst of economic and social change; they feel less empowered to change things; their idea of national identity is very closely tied to their attachment to particular places and the people who live there; they are less likely to have been to university and, thus, less well equipped to compete in the emerging labour market.”
The report suggests that devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but not England “raised a challenge to the idea that English and British were the same thing” and that “very large scale immigration” has also contributed.
Between 2001 and 2019, the population of England has risen from 49 million to 56 million – largely through migration, the report says: “These voters’ strong sense of identity and community has been disrupted by changes they were not expecting. While some of this reaction is based on racism, for most it is more a sense of uncertainty and loss of a stable community.”
Ethnic Nationalism or Civic Nationalism?
Speaking at an event in Parliament to mark the launch of the report, the former Labour MP John Denham said that “on the most fundamental level, if being English happens to be quite an important part of what you think you are and a political party never mentions you or is rude about you, the rest doesn’t matter”.
For him, if people feeling ‘English’ is not acknowledged by Labour, then “even if you’ve got all the right policies to make people’s lives better, you never get past that”.
Justin Madders, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, said that the party faces a major challenge in the former Red Wall seats lost to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives because its new MPs are “not stockbrokers parachuted in from Surrey, they are actually people who have often grown up in those communities, they sound like the majority of the people there and are a very different type of Tory than we’re used to”.
Despite this, he believes that Labour has more chance of winning seats again in England than in Scotland and that “we have to be unafraid of saying that we’re English and we’re proud of being English”. The Labour Party’s response to the Government’s proposed points-based immigration system is a “classic example” of it being afraid to “say the wrong thing” on the issue of identity, he said, as “we haven’t even said we accept the need for an immigration system”.
Sam Tarry, the newly elected Labour MP for Ilford South, believes Labour must “build a progressive, inclusive sense of English patriotism whether you’re black, white or Asian so you can take ownership of that” through educating people about the UK’s history and traditions, including the Empire. Having an ‘English’ identity in the UK is currently associated with the far-right, he said, and this needs to change.
David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, said the issue of Englishness and identity is so relevant for Labour to tackle now because the UK faces a battle between “ethnic nationalism or civic nationalism when there’s definitely a growing ethnic nationalism that shuts certain people out”.
A compulsory national civic service, the creation of “an encounter culture where people from all backgrounds, races and places can meet”; an English citizens’ assembly; a written constitution; and a more nuanced immigration policy are possible solutions, he believes.
Having spent time growing up in Peterborough, Lammy said he is very comfortable feeling English and British but that, during the EU Referendum campaign, people started to question his Englishness because “I represented something that they couldn’t stand and couldn’t possibly be part of the England that they love and they know… That is a sensibility that seems to be quite dominant and out there”.
“The formula” of populist ethnic nationalism “is proving increasingly attractive to parties that were historically centre-right”, he said, “because it’s a vote winner”.
“As we have seen in the United States, there is a version of nationhood that is basically an ethnic nationalism,” Lammy said. “It appeals to an ethnic purism and says that your sense of nationhood comes from the fact that you are of a certain race and a certain tribe. There’s another type of nationalism which I call a civic nationalism which is built around shared stories, shared visions, shared ideals, shared institutions and Labour needs to get really serious about that whole agenda, filling in that space.
“Part of this lies in the progressive, liberal and left family vacating the territory to do with nationhood, to do with patriotism, to do with pride in who you are… An economic analysis of the inequalities and the injustices in Britain are not sufficient, addressing issues of poverty and brutal unfairness because of class are not sufficient. You still have to have an account of the nation.”
Paula Surridge, a political sociologist at the University of Bristol, agreed and believes that Labour must confront this issue – because, if it doesn’t, others will come along and capitalise on this.
“Labour has turned its back on [the identity] space,” she said. “As a result, the far-right has moved into that space and once the far-right have normalised it a little bit, it’s far easier for the centre-right to come in and pick up those votes.”