openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Keir Starmer was right to stress his patriotism. Now Labour must turn the patriotic heat on the Right

The party must challenge the idea that those who govern us are patriots or serve the national interest

John Denham
12 February 2021, 10.09am
Labour leader Keir Starmer’s insistence on love of the nation he wants to lead is essential
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Long before a voter considers party policies, let alone ideology, they ask more visceral questions: “do these politicians understand me? And will they stand up for people like me on things I really care about?” It’s the most fundamental relationship in politics and one that continually frustrates the Left. “When it is so obvious to us that we are on the side of the people,” the activist asks, “how can THEY possibly vote for over-privileged, shallow and incompetent old Etonians?”

The harsh answer is that skilled politicians of the Right care about pressing buttons that matter, while the Left makes a show of disdaining them. That’s why the horrified reaction of many left-wing activists to the idea of a patriotic Labour serves only to confirm to many voters that the party neither understands nor wants to stand for them.

Most people in Britain, including Britain’s ethnic minorities, see themselves as patriotic and are instinctively suspicious of those who are not. They have few problems with flags, a monarchy seen as being above politics, or a military composed primarily of working-class recruits. This is emphatically not just an issue for the ‘Red Wall’ but for the southern English conservatives whom Labour must woo on the new electoral boundaries. So far as it goes, party leader Keir Starmer’s insistence on love of the nation he wants to lead is essential and his record of public service gives an underlying authenticity to his message.

For all that, the rewards of patriotism will be thin unless Labour understands where its new focus must now take it. While you cannot get elected as an unpatriotic party, there are not many votes in patriotism itself. It is a precondition for electoral support, but few voters are actually looking for patriotism on the ballot paper. What matters now is how Labour tells the story of the nation and the people it wants to serve. Done well, Labour can redefine who really does stand for the national interest and turn the patriotic heat on the Right.

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As class-based allegiances continue to break down, every Left party in Europe is facing the challenge of building a new electoral coalition. Our experiences are fragmented by geography, education, income, wealth, employment and race, often giving us quite different world views. Only a compelling story of the nation and its future has the chance of making millions of people who otherwise live quite different lives and hold different values feel they share a common sense of purpose.

The shared stories, histories, symbols and values that make us feel we belong to the same nation (the ‘imagined community’, as historian Benedict Anderson famously conceptualised it) are always changing. Fifty years ago, to be British or English was synonymous for many with being white. That’s true of neither identity today.

The horrified reaction of many left-wing activists to the idea of a patriotic Labour serves only to confirm to many voters that the party neither understands nor wants to stand for them

A few years ago, former prime minister David Cameron enacted a requirement for 'British values' to be taught in English schools. But opposition to discrimination by race, gender or sexual orientation, the right for everyone to vote or enjoy equality before under the law, did not come from Britain’s air or water. These British values were the product of long and hard social struggles that continue today. Our national stories are contested and conflicted. My father, who joined the RAF from his Yorkshire mining village, saw Churchill both as a heroic wartime leader and as a man deserving contempt for his opposition to the Great Strike.

Labour can only own patriotism if it is linked to a clear story about the nation that includes all those who have built, changed and are changing the country. It does not need to reject all national history nor to embrace the past uncritically, but the emphasis must lie on how the people have made the nation and how Labour will help them shape it in the future. Much work is needed on this national narrative, including a recognition that the union flag alone does not embrace the national identities of everyone who might vote Labour. But as it is developed the question of who is patriotic can be less a pleading “Labour are patriots too” and more a self-confident message that “we are the real patriots”.

In recent decades the economies of the UK and of England in particular have been restructured to serve a narrow set of wealth-extracting, rentier and often foreign or overseas based interests. Marketisation and financialisation have been less about fostering competitive free-markets and more about rigging the system for those with access to power. From privatisation to the housing market, from the asset stripping of British companies to offshore tax avoiders, from the preference for management consultants over the national and local state, the common feature has been the organisation of the economy to enrich the unproductive.

This is where Labour’s patriotism should now lead. To challenge the idea that those who govern us today are patriots or serve the national interest. Seen in this light, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves recent attack on crony contracts during the pandemic is as much a part of Labour’s patriotic story as the union flag over Starmer’s shoulder. As Labour is reportedly moving to be ‘pro-business’ it should be clear that the reconstruction of the national economy must reward those who strengthen the nation, not those who serve themselves.

In the 2017 election, then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s stump speech often asked: “what sort of country do we want to be?” Starmer, a more plausible patriot, would be well advised to ask the same question repeatedly. Who really serves the national interest, and who serves the people of the nation? Who benefits, and who should be benefiting?

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