Last Thursday, Miliband put the left on nervy terrain by using the Queen’s diamond jubilee to talk about English identity.
Perhaps not the best occasion, considering this was a celebration of a British, not English, monarch, with all of Britain decked out in union jack flags and stirrings of British pride coming to the surface.
Yet with the fight for Scottish independence now under way, Miliband banked on this being the perfect time to speak up for those south of the border, increasingly calling for their own distinct voice.
As he rightly pointed out:
“This debate about nationhood and identity should not simply be confined to one part of our country.”
He went on to talk about the left’s uneasiness in addressing this issue:
“We in the Labour Party have been too reluctant to talk about England in recent years. We’ve concentrated on shaping a new politics for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
“We should embrace a positive, outward looking version of English identity. Finally, we should also proudly talk the language of patriotism.”
This shouldn’t be difficult to talk about, but for a number of reasons the left has tied itself in knots trying to (not) deal with it. On identity, it has mistakenly sought to (over)intellectualise, where the right have effortlessly made overtures to the non-quantifiables; human instincts such as loyalty and patriotism.
For too long, the left’s hesitation, its half-hearted commitment, partly borne out of a never-ending battle with Empire guilt and partly down to not wanting to give oxygen to the far right (which we ended up doing anyway), has allowed the right to colonise (so to speak) this issue.
Whether exaggerated or not (in particular, in the early days of New Labour), every time someone felt they were being denied the right to fly the St George’s cross (a story always gleefully picked up by the right wing press), or express their love for being English, simply nudged them further to the right, and into the arms of the less desirables. Usually, but certainly not exclusively, the case for working class Labour voters.
Which brings me on to Jonathan Haidt’s column in The Guardian about the way the working class vote. Author of the recently published ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion’, he uses this comment piece to explain why the political right (from all over the world) have managed to cleverly convince blue-collar voters to ally themselves with them even when it appears to be against their own interests.
For Haidt, this represents a victory for the right in its appeal to heart over head. Whilst the left monopolises care, compassion and welfare, the right have gone straight for the gut. For them, politics is all about:
“A moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies. In most countries, the right tends to see that more clearly than the left.”
In some respects, the right have (over) simplified politics. There’s no need for detailed explanation when you have symbols and powerful rhetoric, steeped in a sense of morality:
“One reason the left has such difficulty forging a lasting connection with voters is that the right has a built-in advantage – conservatives have a broader moral palate than the liberals (as we call leftists in the US)”
The right are comfortable enough to weigh in on cultural issues, such as identity, with the left playing catch up.
Whilst national identity isn’t as much of an issue on the other side of the Atlantic (proving your patriotism is par for the course for any American politician), it seems to be in constant flux over here. This is no doubt due to historical and cultural reasons more than anything else but that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid concern for some.
Economic uncertainty, spending cuts, downsizing the welfare state, which Labour admits it would have had to do (at some point) itself, mean less tangible issues come to the fore.
People are scared, they feel vulnerable. They want a sense of unified purpose, a feeling of belonging. This is why Ed Miliband has chosen to tackle English identity a full three years before the general election. He knows that the left is more trusted on the NHS and in looking after society’s most needy, but the fact that 4-5 million working class voters have abandoned the party since 1997 proves that this isn’t enough.
“Many people harbour deeply conservative views on matters of value, but not on matters of justice – [this] represents both an intellectual challenge, and a political opportunity, for left-wing parties.”
Speaking up for an English identity should form part of Labour’s new conservative narrative. You can do all this whilst also standing up for a strong, nurturing, state. In the words of one writer, time for a “nostalgia of the left, based on community, social solidarity and public service”.