Speaking to England.

Author:Barker, Tom
Position:NOTEBOOK
 
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Englishness is a difficult subject for the Labour Party. Tom Barker reports on the 'England and Labour' seminars, Westminster and Huddersfield, February--April 2016, and the debates held over English identity, constitutional change and Labour Party organisation. Englishness doesn't have to be bad for Labour, but the party must speak to rather than for England.

How distant seem the days of 'One Nation' Labour. Launched at the party conference in October 2012, the slogan seemed perfectly calibrated to do two things. The first was to herald Ed Miliband's Labour as a party attuned to the widening inequalities in British society, insufficiently acknowledged by New Labour and exacerbated by Tory austerity, using one of the Conservative Party's most cherished motifs as a weapon against it. The second was to clearly position Labour as a party of the Union, in response to the SNP's planned referendum on independence. Now, nearly four years on, the optimism implicit in that One Nation mantra feels all-but spent. Yes, Scotland narrowly voted to remain in the UK in September 2014, but the following May's general election result not only put paid to any hopes of a serious effort to tackle inequality, it also saw Labour virtually eliminated north of the border. Now, in the wake of the Brexit vote, a second referendum on Scottish independence looks quite probable. One of the greatest ironies--and disasters--of the 2015 election, however, was Labour's woeful performance in England (outside of London), most likely worsened by the perception that the Party was more attuned to the interests of Scotland, or at least ready to 'sell out' to the SNP in any post-election coalition negotiations. As the Labour MP Tristram Hunt writes in the introduction to a recent ebook:

Labour was subjected to a shameless marriage of convenience between lion and unicorn--a tag-team effort by David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon that pitted each as the protector of the English and Scottish national interest respectively. Scottish voters were told we would sell them out to the Tories, whilst in England voters were told we would sell them out to the SNP. In both countries the allegations were believed. (1) As Hunt goes on to explain, a strong sense was expressed by many voters on the doorstep that Labour simply did not understand or represent English interests or identity. If the notion of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as one nation was always, at best, a well-intentioned myth--the UK is best understood as a multi-nation state--Labour now finds itself in the invidious position of failing to appeal sufficiently to any of its constituent nations, something which amounts to an existential threat to a serious party of government. (2)

Hunt's book, filled with the reflections of Labour Party MPs and candidates, is part of a growing literature on what Emily Robinson, of the University of Sussex, has described in the pages of this journal as 'the new Englishness'. (3) In a major contribution to this debate, a series of seminars was convened by former Labour MP John Denham, now Professor and Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester. Four seminars were held between February and April 2016--three in Westminster and one in Huddersfield. The panels were made up of local and national politicians, academics, journalists and activists, and were complemented by a suite of written submissions by others with interest and expertise in this area. Details of all the participants and contributors are available below, and the written submissions can be found on the Fabians' website. This article seeks to give a flavour of the seminars and to tie the contributions together in an effort to organise the debate and move it forwards. Three sections follow: the first briefly analyses the nature and dimensions of English identity and sentiment, emphasising its all-important class component. The second moves on to consider some of the constitutional implications of this newly awakened identity, and some of the difficulties it raises, particularly the split between those who favour devolution to England and the creation of an English parliament, and those who prefer devolution to the English regions. The final...

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