Part of: North

Essay: Understanding Labour’s English Questions

by Michael Kenny on 4 July 2016

Michael Kenny, director of the Mile End Institute, Queen Mary University of London, considers devolution policies and national identity.

Michael Kenny, director of the Mile End Institute, Queen Mary University of London, considers devolution policies and national identity.

Children with with St George's flag painted faces at an England-Belgium football friendly, The New Statesman

This article was written some months before the UK's Referendum on EU membership. Its key themes and arguments remain pertinent in the aftermath of this historic vote, not least because of the extensive support for Brexit across the North of England and the debate this result has engerdered about the political disaffection of sections of the English working class.

The government’s plans for a significant devolution of powers to Greater Manchester continue to generate considerable debate. Critics have focused on their implications for policy in key areas such as health provision, on the model of executive leadership that George Osborne favours – in the form of the directly elected mayor [1], and on the question of whether this represents a top-down, enclosed form of governance, or one that might permit a revival of the wider civic culture. Equally, the merits and limitations of the Northern Powerhouse have also generated division, not least about whether it will make a difference to the economic prospects of some of the most disadvantaged communities in the UK [2].

Amidst this swirl of comment and debate, much less attention has been paid to the question of what these projects mean for one of the most powerful and destabilising trends in British politics – political tensions around national identity and territory. The government's much trumpeted ambition to bring greater self-government, increased investment and sustainable growth to the Northern economy brings a multi-faceted set of challenges for Labour. And these include -- but also spill beyond – questions such as whether the party tries to mould a more radical, decentralising alternative [3], or sticks to a familiar line about Tory plans to pass responsibility for cuts to beleaguered Labour authorities.

A broader issue at stake here is whether the party can supply a coherent answer to the political question which inform these reforms. Does it accept the case made by the Conservatives for English devolution, or not? Where political authority should lie within England, and how the largest territory within the UK should be governed, are undoubtedly uncomfortable questions for Labour to deal with. Yet they are now also unavoidable.

Whichever way the party turns, tensions over territory lie ahead. Rather than dismissing its Scottish cataclysm as a one-off, progressives should see it as a warning about what can happen to parties that are on the wrong side of the powerful currents of national sentiment and cultural attachment. Yet the Labour leadership’s lack of feel for these issues is notable. Amidst all the politicking over Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle of his Shadow Cabinet in January 2016, his team were striking inattentive to the territorial implications of their decisions, as two representatives of Northern seats and one from the Midlands were removed, and more London MPs promoted [4].

The single, most notable, identity trend of the last two decades is the rising salience and strength of an attachment to English, rather than British, nationhood.

The attachments that have become most important to people across the UK range from the very local, up to the town or city, to counties, and, for a minority, the region. But the single, most notable, identity trend of the last two decades is the rising salience and strength of an attachment to English, rather than British, nationhood [5]. And while this does not mean that most people reject an affiliation to the multi-national UK, there is evidence to suggest that for a growing number, this spills over into a desire for a much greater institutional recognition of England and its perceived interests [6].

These feelings have come to the fore, in part, as a consequence of the devolution settlement introduced by the first Labour government. Intended as a bulwark against the rise of nationalist sentiment in Scotland especially, the on-going award of greater powers for Scotland and Wales has boosted the development of more distinct and nationally self-conscious political cultures and debates in the non-English parts of the UK. And it has, over time, rendered the question of the constitutional position of the English a more politically resonant one.

More recently, following the dramatic rise to prominence of the SNP in Scotland, and the strengthened position of a Conservative party that is almost entirely English in its parliamentary representation, a powerful, territorially rooted dynamic has come to the fore in British politics. This runs between a mainly Southern, English Conservative party, on the one hand, and an unchallenged SNP. And unless the UK’s progressives make themselves relevant to, and offer potential solutions to, this conflict, they face the risk of being pushed to the margins of political life.

Labour’s current woes therefore have a clear territorial, as well as ideological, dimension. Scotland is lost for the foreseeable future. There are new challenges in Wales in the form of the Conservative party, which polled strongly in the General Election [7]. And the party is a long way from being in a position to challenge in swathes of Eastern, South-Eastern and Southern England [8].

One tempting response to these challenges is to assume that it should seek refuge in its remaining heartlands -- the North of England and London. The idea of a renewal premised upon Northern identity and its accompanying traditions is both powerful and appealing. It speaks to those who still hold a candle for the ambition that has, in recent years, fallen into disrepute in Labour circles -- the idea of developing a system of regional government. This idea was pursued in highly technocratic form by the Blair governments, and was mainly driven by concerns about imbalances in regional economic fortunes and performance [9]. Some hoped for the development of more democratic systems at the regional level, but this ambition never came close to realisation. The regionalist project was shattered by the No vote registered in the North East Referendum of 2004. Prominent figures from Northern Labour, such as John Prescott, were architects of this vision, and it was nurtured thereafter by various Brownites, most notably Ed Balls. Similar assumptions and ambitions inform current assertions of Northern regionalism.

Yet there have always been Northern Labour figures – for instance David Blunkett [10] and Frank Field – who have instead argued for England as the natural companion to the pride that many feel in cities like Sheffield and Liverpool.

More generally, the notion of a Labour revival based upon the politics of any single region – be it London or regions in the North -- suffers from a number of limitations. In political terms, it is unlikely that Osborne would have pursued the Powerhouse strategy had he not become convinced of the potential for his own party to win more voters in parts of the North. This judgment reflects an appreciation that Labour's position, though strong, has been weakening markedly over the last few decades, as signalled by the loss of local government in cities like Newcastle (2004) and Sheffield (2008) to the Lib Dems. Labour is also badly affected by the rise in non-voting among working-class citizens in the North. Indeed, across the country, while the turnout gap before the mid 2000s by social class was fairly small, at the last election the difference in the proportion of people in manual jobs who did not vote compared to people in professional and managerial jobs was nearly 20% [11]. The rise of UKIP, now the most working-class party in British politics, represents a particularly acute challenge for Labour; there are few signs that Corbyn’s brand of metropolitan leftism will stem the flow of working-class voters from Labour.

A further reason for caution about the idea of a Labour revival founded upon regional identity is that such an idea serves to lock Labour into a particular cultural idiom and a sub-national focus at a point when, like its competitors, it needs to contemplate building alliances and making connections across differences of class, geography and ethnicity. But seeking to stick to a UK-wide patriotism looks increasingly like flogging a dead horse, as the depth of attachment associated with Britishness has declined so markedly. A state-wide national focus and a strongly regionalist ‘offer’, which many in the party favour, represents a pitch that is both too broad and too narrow. It is perhaps no coincidence that in Wales, the only territory where Labour is the leading force, the party takes the lead in telling a progressive national story, and is entirely comfortable within a progressively patriotic frame of reference [12].

This does not mean neglecting the task of developing an alternative model of devolution to that on offer from the current government. Labour needs to explain its belief that devolution requires greater voice and recognition for the English within the political system, and also signal that it supports the dispersal of the powers hoarded within the central state.

It also needs to face up to the complex cross-currents of public attitudes on issues of identity and governance. While there is undoubtedly a growing feel for the idea of self-government and empowerment in different parts of the UK, support for a radical programme of local devolution remains fairly shallow [13]. This may well alter once devolved models are established and if their benefits become clear, but any project for local or regional devolution has to live within these parameters. The Englishness that is re-emerging is not, for most people, separate from, or a rival to, attachments to their own area or town. It is through the lived experience of different places, towns and cities that a feeling of nationhood is learned and shaped. Territorial identities work in more complicated, joined up ways than progressive thinking tends to allow. A recent series of annual surveys on this score show that a sense of Englishness had grown at a roughly similar rate in all regions of England -- from Durham to Devon, and Cheltenham to Clacton [14]. The only significant outlier to this trend is Greater London and the South East, where a much larger proportion of people continue to identity as British.

The St George Flag

Appropriating feelings of local solidarity and pride, while connecting to a wider progressive and patriotic story, looks increasingly like the right kind of response to these challenges. And, as various commentators have noted [15] Labour now has a successful template to ponder in the form of Jim McMahon's impressive campaign in the Oldham by-election of November 2015. This illustrates well how such a focus can create the opening for politicians of the left to offer a more rooted and compelling alternative to the shrill discourse of populist nationalism.

Clearly people do not live or express their sense of Englishness in the same way in this extraordinarily diverse land. But is it misleading to assume that these differences are mainly structured along a North-South divide. Multiple differences, not the 'two nations' of Victorian England, should be the watchword of progressives seeking to engage with the contemporary politics of identity.

In key respects, English national identity is still defined by an indefinability that has fascinated and disappointed commentators for centuries [16]. This gives it an imaginative range, an adaptability, and a lived, rather than stipulated, quality (a 'behavioural grammar' as Kate Fox puts it [17]. And it also means that there is plenty of room for different visions, ideas and experiences of Englishness to be promoted and celebrated in the public culture.
It is certainly true that the playing field is far from being level when it comes to how different parts of the country figure within the national story. George Orwell was one of a swathe of Southern English writers who journeyed north in the last century, and reported on an England that seemed to exist outside the ambit of familiar ideas of Englishness. This was the England of the industrial revolution soiled by the sweat, dirt and toil of factory labour [18]- the stark antithesis of the 'green and pleasant' land which many writers assumed to be located somewhere between the Cotswolds and the South Downs.

The North has undoubtedly been hugely disadvantaged by patterns of cultural representation, as well as by its systemic economic marginalisation. But there is a risk that current assertions of the uniqueness, and progressive potential, of Northern identity tacitly accept the dominant notion that its identities, manners and cultures place it outside the English nation.

Englishness is best understood as a layered set of representations, selected memories and cultural performances. Some of the standard references through which these are evoked – the twee village, the thatched roof, the sanitised songs of the folk tradition invented by Cecil Sharp, and the genteel landscapes of Southern England (as opposed to the wild and dark moors of the North) - have long conveyed the imprint of England as the 'Southern Country'. But these influential and instantly recognisable versions of the homeland have always been shadowed, and occasionally challenged, by other Englands. These have been drawn from its industrial heritage, the rich history of its local civic cultures, the spirit of economic innovation and commerce associated with cities like Leeds and Manchester, and the cultural 'cool' attached to various iconic artists [19]

In this undoubtedly imbalanced context, a turn away the 'identity space' (to borrow Charles Taylor’s phrase) that is coalescing, in messy and disparate ways, around a more strongly felt Englishness, would be self-defeating. The left needs to champion a more diverse, locally rooted and regionally ranging set of impressions and ideas about England, and its peoples. If it does not start telling a progressive story of nationhood to those audiences still prepared to give it a hearing, there is every chance that Tory Englishness will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Manchester Town Hall

Thanks to Nick Pearce for comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

[8] and [9]
[16] and [17]



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