Keir Starmer needs to start talking about Englishness to kickstart a Labour revival among traditional supporters, a party grandee warns tonight.
The Labour leader, who heads to Brighton this weekend for the party’s autumn conference, should carve out policies designed to appeal to proud English people, according to former Communities Secretary John Denham.
The 68-year-old is director of the English Labour Network, which was set up in 2017 to “bring together party activists at every level to make Labour’s case for England to English voters”.
He believes the party’s route back to power lies in trumpeting English identity in the same way the Welsh and Scots are proud of their heritage.
Adam Gerrard / Daily Mirror)
“When I talk about the English I think about ‘we’ and ‘us’,” said Mr Denham.
“Some people in the Labour Party talk about the English as ‘they’ and ‘them’.
“Until people in the Labour Party are comfortable talking about ‘we’ and ‘us’, we are going to have a problem.”
Mr Denham was MP for Southampton Itchen from 1992 until 2015 and it is exactly the type of seat Labour must win to return to power.
Since 1997, and apart from 2010, when Mr Denham claimed a 192 majority, whoever wins the constituency wins No10.
“The balance of power here is held by that group of voters who would identify as English, who are former Labour voters or are from families of former Labour voters who were in working class jobs that no longer exist,” he said.
“They have swung decisively against the Labour Party. It’s the national picture.”
Andrew Parsons / Parsons Media)
His 14,220 majority in Labour’s 1997 landslide fell at every subsequent election and the Tories seized the constituency in 2015, winning by 2,316 votes.
At the December 2019 poll, they increased their majority to 4,498.
The result was the culmination of years of drift to the Conservatives, fuelled by industrial decline, mass migration and a growing sense of unfairness among Labour supporters, according to Mr Denham.
Standing on the 82ft-high Itchen Toll Bridge, he pointed downstream to the Spitfire Court apartment block, named after the Battle of Britain aircraft Supermarine built on the site, and the disused waste ground once occupied by Vosper Thorneycroft’s Woolston shipyard, which specialised in frigates and employed 3,000 workers.
It closed in 2004 after orders dwindled following the end of the Cold War.
Four miles away, in Swaythling, was Ford’s Transit van factory which produced 75,000 vehicles a year – half for export.
It shut in 2013 when production switched to Turkey.
Mr Denham said the “big economic changes that have taken place” were partly responsible for firing people’s sense of identity and community – and Labour failed to gauge voters’ feelings.
“Lots of the parts of life which went with industry – with lots of families working in the same places, with trade unions that not only looked after people’s interests at work but, for quite a few people who hadn’t necessarily done well at school, were routes to education, training and success – that whole picture is vastly reduced and the way of life that went with it,” he said.
“When these changes were taking place, people became less sure that Labour was speaking for them anymore.
“They may still have voted Labour but the sense of loss they had wasn’t being properly represented.
“It was like, ‘This is globalisation, you have to lump it’.”
He cited Tony Blair’s 2005 Labour conference speech where the then Prime Minister claimed: “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.”
Mr Denham said: “What if your experience of globalisation has been lost?”Mass migration from eastern Europe also hit Labour’s relationship with traditional voters.
“As a policy, the Government didn’t anticipate correctly how many people would come,” said Mr Denham.
“What really went wrong is that nobody in government would talk about these huge changes in the labour market.”
Together, they paved the way for Brexit and Labour’s ongoing exile from government.
“The real mistake was not admitting this was having a big impact,” said Mr Denham.
“There was this sense of, ‘We’ve lost our heavy industry, you’re not really reflecting our values on things like welfare and now these big changes are taking place and you’re not even talking about it’.”
Adam Gerrard / Daily Mirror)
People believed Labour were “not really people like us any more, you don’t speak for people like us”, he said.
“Though I am immensely proud of what we did when we were in government, there were things about New Labour that started the problem.”
Key to reversing the tide is speaking about Englishness, said Mr Denham.
“The past 20 years is the story of Labour losing its support amongst voters who have a clear English identity,” he said.
“They’re not English nationalists, they don’t want English independence. But they have these views about England being properly represented.”
Cricket-loving Mr Denham, who is also a regular at Southampton FC, urged Labour to “talk about England” and “don’t, as the Labour Party does all the time, say ‘Britain’ when you mean ‘England’.”
He pointed to Labour’s success in Wales as an example of “fusing what is a genuinely radical and competent Labour government with the idea of Welshness”.
“Everybody in the Labour Party should be talking to Wales and trying to learn from that,” he insisted.
“They have handled questions of identity in the Labour Party much more successfully.”
Mr Denham urged Labour’s UK leadership to develop a “consistent message about wanting to represent the people of England” – and Mr Starmer to address English identity.
“He’s not really engaging with the English question yet,” he said.
“Patriotism gets you into the debate but ultimately your alignment with patriotism – which is a necessary – has got to become a compelling story about the future of the nation or nations.
“That, it’s fair to say, is a work in progress.”
He called for “progressive patriotism – the ability to present Labour policies within a patriotic view of the future of the nation”.
The English Labour Network hosts a conference fringe on Sunday, covering identity, campaigning tactics and how the party should “tailor its politics through this progressive, patriotic prism”.
“Talking about England and Englishness is part of the signal you send to voters that we get it, we know who you are and we want to speak for you,” warned Mr Denham.
“It’s not just ‘you have a St George Cross, you win the election’ – it’s a symbol of the determination to speak for people who feel they don’t have a voice.”
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