More English questions than answers at the Labour conference

A plenary session organised by the Fabian Society as part of the Labour conference fringe in Manchester provided a further opportunity for leading figures within the party to address pressing ‘English Questions’
Andy Mycock
4 October 2010

A plenary session organised by the Fabian Society as part of the Labour conference fringe in Manchester provided a further opportunity for leading figures within the party to address pressing ‘English Questions’. The title of the session, ‘Can Labour Speak for England?’, was somewhat misguided as Labour spent much of its 13 years in power speaking to England without ever really acknowledging it. Whether it was policies in areas such as education or health, or indeed Gordon Brown’s Britishness agenda, when Labour spoke to and of Britain they most often meant England (or sometimes England and Wales).  

It is ironic that the party who introduced devolution never attempted to meet the challenge of developing a vernacular that addressed the complexities of the post-devolution UK state. Whilst devolution cemented the distinctiveness of Scotland and Wales within a quasi-federal state (and potentially outside it), Labour’s refusal to acknowledge the uncertain position of England merely provided ammunition for those seeking to make political capital out of such constitutional anomalies.

There was a strong line-up at the Fabian event including John Denham , Jon Cruddas, and  Yvette Cooper. Denham reiterated his concerns that devolution has further strengthened Scottish and Welsh Labour’s distinctive identities but a comparable English Labour identity (or logo) was lacking. Jon Cruddas argued that Labour needed to ‘rediscover’ an English identity that negated the threat of the English Defence League and others on the far-right. These were, he continued, ‘visceral issues’ concerning to ‘sentiment, belonging and identity, nationhood and loss’.

But much of the session focused on Labour’s electoral woes in England rather than engaging with the significant English Questions that are unintended consequences of Labour’s constitutional reform programme.  Denham, when pressed, argued for an elected second chamber whose remit would include English-only business.  

Only Cruddas was prepared to raise the potential for the federalisation of the Labour party if its English rump continues to Anglicise itself. Cooper did not address establish any identifiable position on pressing English Questions, arguing instead that Labour should be clear in promoting British values such as fairness.

Both framed their answers to Labour’s English conundrums within the context of the falling electoral returns in the south, south-east and east of England. This is not altogether surprising; both Denham and Cruddas have written persuasively about the particular problems faced by Labour in the south). They rightly challenge overly-simplistic narratives that fail to acknowledge pockets of extreme deprivation outside of Labour’s northern English heartlands.

If Labour is to regain some of the seats it won in 1997 but subsequently lost in such areas then there is a need to recognise that working-class alienation and poverty affect the party in areas of the south of England as much as the north.

However, those calling for the recognition of English Labour must tread with care in framing an Anglicised identity. There must be sensitivity to importance of localism and regionalism in understanding England. Yvette Cooper responded strongly that too great a focus an English Labour founded predominantly on concerns in the south of England could have implications for the party elsewhere.

Cooper rightly argued that the Labour party has strong regional and local civic identities across England such as in Yorkshire. This point was also reiterated by a number of members of the audience from Manchester, Birmingham and elsewhere.  She warned that such identities were to be lost at Labour’s peril. If English Labour is to foster a progressive civic identity, it must complement and not override existing regional and local sentiments.

Cruddas tied issues of Labour and English identity together, the common factor being English traditions of radicalism. He argued that there is a distinctly English Labour narrative that informs a nationally-located framework of political values and ideals. Cruddas suggested English Labour should draw on its own history of progressiveness to justify the past, present and future. There is much of merit in such proposals but they are in not new.  A number of progressive English secessionist nationalists have also argued for the recognition of distinctive framework as the basis for independence.

Cruddas has not, as yet, declared any sympathy for secessionism. But proponents of English Labour must recognise that such moves raise new questions which could have further unintended consequences for the party. Thought must be given to how a narrative of English Labour meshes with its overarching British counterpart. The English appropriation and nationalisation of common British Labour values and ideals could have implications for relations with Scottish and Welsh Labour.  

In its genesis, the Labour party was a British political movement and efforts to address particularistic English concerns could compromise this shared history thus emphasising national differences rather than multi-national commonalities.

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