The Labour party’s endless debates about “patriotism” have a Groundhog Day quality to them. From Blair to Brown, Miliband, Corbyn and now Starmer, it’s hard to remember a time when the party wasn’t earnestly interrogating itself about its supposedly antagonistic relationship to questions of British – latterly English – identity.
This discourse has barely changed since Blair’s third term, and has often exhibited the worst and most self-defeating qualities of a party in decline: inward-looking, exclusively focused on Labour and its alleged failings, and largely neglectful of the political context in which the party operates. To the wider public, Labour’s endless discussions of patriotism suggest a fatal lack of confidence and self-belief, in sharp contrast to the Conservatives’ unshakeable, breezy entitlement.
Accusations that Labour lacks a sense of “patriotism” are nearly as old as the party itself. The revisionist history told by many commentators, that Labour was regarded as irreproachably “patriotic” by all and sundry until Jeremy Corbyn came along, is a laughable invention. In the 1930s and 1980s, Conservative governments succeeded in portraying the organised industrial working class – inflationary, uncouth and potentially seditious – as standing outside a “true” British nation characterised by the “vigorous virtues” of bourgeois thrift and propriety. Now, it is the urban precariat and even many salaried, university-educated professionals who have suddenly found that their interests and values aren’t included within the Conservatives’ definition of national politics.
Because gig economy workers, renters and urban professionals don’t conform to many people’s idea of a traditional Labour supporter – and because some people who look and sound like versions of the latter have switched allegiance to the Tories – it can be hard to identify the structural similarity between these people and Labour’s core constituencies in earlier periods of electoral defeat. Yet the similarities are there. The economy under the Conservative party during the 1930s and 1980s was notoriously stacked against workers in declining heavy industries in Scotland, Wales and northern England. In our own time, a combination of stagnant wages and skyrocketing asset prices disadvantage young workers and renters everywhere, especially in Britain’s Labour-voting cities.
Treating “patriotism” as a static set of values that a metropolitan Labour party has carelessly abandoned misunderstands the challenge confronting Labour. The party has a dynamic relationship with patriotism, shaped by a rhetorical contest with its opponents over endless possible visions of the nation, and by peoples’ changing material circumstances. The story of our time is not the party’s abandonment of an English working class that has long been undergoing a wrenching process of decline. Rather, it’s of how the right has presided over an economy that rewards asset-owners at the expense of everyone else, while purging liberalism and social democracy from Britain’s political culture.
The result of this is a superficial, misanthropic kind of nationalism that is devoid of any real regard for Britain’s history or institutions, and is based on little more than blind deference to privilege, cruelty to outsiders, and contempt for our fellow citizens. To voters, the main attraction of this new Tory nationalism is that it makes voting for Britain’s traditional governing party seem like an act of thrilling rebellion against the “woke orthodoxy” represented by under-40s living in big cities. In focus groups conducted in “red wall” seats, you often hear the accusation that Labour is a party “for students”. The Labour leadership rightly reads this as an invitation to find out what it needs to do to convince former voters the party still represents them. But it’s the intensity of the disdain for students, not the belief that Labour is for those students, that is new and concerning here.
As things stand, Labour is going to have a hard time convincing anybody that it isn’t “for” young people and those who are “woke” – at least to a greater degree than the Conservatives, which is what matters in electoral terms. It would be folly, then, to allow this kind of ginned-up resentment to set the parameters for how Labour tries to tell its own story about Britain. Unless the party can convincingly articulate why idealistic young people have a role to play in the nation’s future (something that, in a more functional political culture, would not be such a hard sell), then it will be permanently boxed into the defensive crouch it has occupied for much of the past decade. The only way to break free is for Labour and the people it represents (whoever they are) to establish their own idea of the country’s future, and confidently invite others to join them.
A good starting point would be to take a little more pride in Labour’s good standing with young people. In many other European countries, established parties of the centre left would do almost anything to attract thumping majorities among the under-35s in support of their programmes. It is not something to take for granted; nor is it surprising that in an ageing society where young people are forced to seek work in a small number of large cities, the votes of these cohorts count for less than they once did. But Labour shouldn’t accept a zero-sum choice between keeping the coalition it has and growing the coalition it needs. The party leadership doesn’t need to praise or condemn every action by social movements advancing racial and climate justice. Nor should these movements set much store by what the leader of the opposition does or doesn’t say about them.
What Labour politicians can do, however, is vigorously reject the notion that there is something inherently unpatriotic about challenge and dissent; and proudly weave popular movements, past and present, back into a more generous, less brittle account of what it means to live in 21st-century Britain. Unlike the cynical politicians and journalists who fall over themselves to sneer at movements such as Black Lives Matter and the climate strikers, these movements actually believe (at least on some level) that Britain is capable of addressing both the nation’s past atrocities and present injustices. This isn’t patriotism by the lights of the opinion pages or the focus groups. But it exhibits a greater faith in the actual moral and intellectual capacities of British citizens than the boosterish rhetoric Johnson and his acolytes spout whenever the cameras are rolling.