Labour faces up to the English Question

The party must broaden its appeal from traditional areas of support and win over Middle England

Andrew Marr
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:25

Labour has a problem with England. It isn't an immediate problem, because Labour is doing so well that, aided by insanely self-destructive Tories, it may well win a general election across almost all of the country, not just in its traditional Scottish, Welsh and northern heartlands. But in power, and sooner rather than later, Labour must confront the question of Englishness.

The Conservatives are already playing an English nationalist card, making the most of the fact that Labour has special debts to pay to its Scottish and Welsh supporters. With Gordon Brown as Chancellor and Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary, there would be much of this to come. It is dangerous for Labour, simply because England is so dominant: no party can thrive in Britain without being an English party, too.

There always used to be a strong English patriotism of the left, a vision that gathered Tom Paine, Hazlitt, the Chartists, the struggle against fascism and the post-war welfare state under a single banner. Because of the war and the 1945 election it smoothly became a British, rather than an English, patriotism. Philip Dodd, whose pamphlet on Britishness published by Demos formed the basis of an essay in this paper yesterday, called it "the vision of a United Radical People".

That banner flutters still. But it has become faded and shredded. Left- wing patriotism was badly damaged by the success of Thatcherism, a particularly English movement, in proclaiming national rebirth. "British" patriotism came to seem a Tory thing, and an English thing, located most firmly in the south of the country.

Labour, by contrast, was squeezed out of the most populous and prosperous centres of Britishness, back to the Celtic lands, to the inner cities, and to the industrially defeated territories of the North. Today, Labour is left with the results of that exclusion - a heavily Scottish and northern front bench, disputes with its Asian supporters and a constitutional reform programme born from the years of exclusion.

All of which makes some of its leading English MPs distinctly uneasy. If Labour comes to office and then spends years paying its debts to the Scots, northern English councillors and so on, then it faces the danger of confirming all the instincts of Middle England that, somehow, Labour isn't "our party". Should that happen,Labour can win once, but can't really change the terms of trade. It remains too far from the centre of Englishness. That, at least, is the argument bubbling quietly but seriously inside the Shadow Cabinet.

The most immediate evidence is the way senior English and Scottish Labourites talk about their proposed Edinburgh Parliament. Senior English MPs dislike the name, warn darkly about cutting spending north of the border if it goes ahead; and take the West Lothian question very seriously. Some are also unhappy with the radical model of the Scottish Parliament agreed at the Scottish Constitutional Convention between Scottish Labour and other Scottish parties. One says, with irritation: "This is a policy that has been negotiated with the Scottish Liberals without being negotiated with Labour in England."

The importance of the Scottish Parliament to Scottish Labour is so great, and has been so heavily underlined, that even the English critics accept that it must go ahead. But this doesn't mean the Scottish-English tension is over. Far from it. English Labour MPs can be derisive about the Scottish party in private. They regard it as semi-moribund and backward, arguing, for instance, that Tony Blair's Sedgefield party has more members than the whole of Glasgow, which returns 11 Labour MPs. And they look forward with relish to the day when Labour is the majority party in England and the Scots lose their dominant position in the British party.

That could mean, the English argue, cuts in the number of Scottish seats at Westminster, as well as a redrawing of the financial deal between the countries. Even under Labour? Well, if the party's priority is to firm up its English support then this must be a possibility.

There is also the more general question about the scale of Labour modernisation, which was devised more with southern English voters in mind than northerners or Scots. It was no coincidence that it was Jack Straw, the Blackburn MP now in charge of the constitutional programme, who first promoted the idea of rewriting Clause IV to shift Labour's image. John Smith, a more traditionalist Scottish leader, was furious with him, and didn't see the point of it; but the incident helped to cement Straw's relationship with Blair, which is strong and growing in importance.

Recently, after John Major's January attack on devolution, Blair, Straw and their allies have turned against the idea that English regional assemblies and the like are required to "solve" the imbalance caused by a Scottish Parliament - something favoured by Smith. Instead of the Scottish tail wagging the English dog it now looks as if Labour will propose more modest bodies, perhaps called chambers, which would use local councillors from the region concerned to scrutinise industrial policies, transport, planning and so on. Only where pressure is strong for a directly elected assembly, as it is in parts of the North, would these be developed. This will be sold as an English solution to an English problem.

The need for a more Anglocentric Labour agenda also means that Scottish home rule would be matched by a series of early constitutional initiatives designed to appeal to voters in the South as well. Reform of the Lords, incorporation of the European Bill of Rights, and a privacy law against press intrusion are all runners. It also seems certain that Labour will offer a referendum on voting reform in its 1996-97 manifesto.

It is mere common sense that Labour needs to be a mainstream English party to thrive, which of course means mainstream views on tax, law and order, things that matter more than the constitution. But the constitution is pretty central to Labour's idea of nation. And here is where Labour in England has to be careful. A notion of Englishness based on hostility to Scottishness, or Welshness, or Irishness, might work for Conservatives; but it cannot work for this party, and not just because of its electoral base. It can't work because it implies an exclusive idea of Englishness which the left must abhor. If the English are a single people, led by a small group of people in a single city, then Labour's programme of democratic reform is nonsense.

But they aren't and the exclusive Home Counties notion of Englishness is a smug and unrealistic one, which many more people than the Scots are finding stifling. There is a lighter, more diverse Englishness on offer, and a better Britishness that flows from it. Mr Dodd, in the essay already mentioned, talks of Britain as a "mongrel nation" founded on the continuous import and export of people, ideas and culture: "What it is to be British ought always to be plural, not singular as Mrs Thatcher contended."

That seems just the sort of generous idea that Labour badly needs to take to market. And what's more, it matches what the English are like far better than the other.

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