Labour must stop associating the England flag with far-right extremism if it is to have a chance of winning back Brexit and Tory voters needed to win an election, a former Cabinet minister has warned.
John Denham, co-founder of a new English Labour Network group, said that too often the St George’s flag was linked by some in the party to the English Defence League and hate crime.
Ahead of the launch of the campaign at the annual conference in Brighton, Denham told HuffPost UK that Labour needed to reclaim a sense of “patriotism” for its progressive policies.
And amid a fresh push by activists for a more liberal migration policy, he added that Labour would fail to regain power if it drew up plans “to benefit the migrants rather than people who already live here”.
The English Labour Network, which draws on the Left and centrist wings of the party, formally launches in Brighton with a mission to win back voters who drifted away from the party in England in recent years.
Its backers include members of the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC), councillors, trade union members and local party campaigners. Labour MPs Jon Cruddas, Shabana Mahmood and Liam Byrne are supporters, as is Jeremy Corbyn’s 2016 leadership campaign director Sam Tarry.
“There are people who get the importance of England right across the party from left to right,” Denham said. “And there are people who don’t get it right across the party, so it cuts across an awful lot of traditional factions, it’s very important it’s seen to have that broad base of support.
“Many of the crises in UK politics are in England. We are leaving the European Union overwhelmingly because of English voters and they were the voters most likely to identify as English. England is the most divided part of the UK in terms of education, different economic geography, so if you are going to have progressive politics, you have got to win England itself.”
Denham said that recent polls show Labour lags behind significantly in the support it gets from voters “who identify as English” rather than British, and needed to radically decentralise from London and not rely on Scotland to win a Commons majority.
“Labour actually needs to aim to win an English majority. You can’t rely on a shedload of Labour MPs in Scotland to give you a UK majority. And I think as every year goes by it will be harder for a Labour UK majority government to introduce policies for England if Labour doesn’t have a majority in England.
“We saw that in the 2015 campaign [which saw Ed Miliband pilloried over a possible SNP deal], there is this sense that the English interest isn’t always the same as the UK interest.”
Denham, who was Communities and Local Government Secretary under Brown and police minister under Blair, represented Southampton Itchen as an MP, a key southern English marginal lost to the Tories in 2015.
“There’s a really powerful English dimension to politics that Labour has often neglected or at worst shunned, not wanted to engage positively with England and Englishness,” he said.
Asked what he felt about Emily Thornberry’s infamous tweet of a St George’s flag in Rochester, Kent in 2014, he insisted that she denied any attempt to sneer at voters.
“But you will get some people in the Labour party who will assume that the St George’s cross means ‘English Defence League’, hating migrants, reactionary on everything,” he said.
“In fact of course there are more people in England who identify as English to some degree than identify as British. More people who emphasise their Englishness as their Britishness.
“If you stereotype everybody who feels proud of being English or right-wing, anti-migrant, xenophobic, you are making two mistakes. One is you are completely misunderstanding what most people think about being English. Secondly you are putting on millions of people a set of values that they would reject.
“I’m not by any means saying that’s the whole of the Labour party. But there are people in the Labour party who instinctively recoil from these things. If you go on Twitter you find that very quickly.”
Denham said that towns, rather than big Metropolitan areas, where the key battleground for Labour, not least as many Brexit voters as well as Tory voters lived there.
“It’s a very English thing to build your idea of England around a strong sense of place. We are a country perfectly comfortable with multiple identities. It’s critical for Labour to understand that because the key seats that Labour needs to win the next election and a majority are largely not in the big metropolitan cities.
“They are largely in smaller cities, larger towns, sometimes with a rural area around it, where that sense of identity and place can be very strong indeed. We want to see how we draw out that sense of identity so the politics comes across as progressive absolutely but also patriotic.”
In an interview with HuffPost UK last month, Corbyn sketched out his own definition of patriotism as “caring for all the people of the country”, tackling poverty, poor education and food banks.
Denham said: “It’s about learning to express genuinely progressive politics as patriotic and not just in the traditional language of left and right. It’s about what sort of country we want to be.”
He praised Corbyn for his new emphasis on England in the last Labour manifesto, moving beyond Miliband’s pledge of a constitutional convention to look at giving England similar representation as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“It talked about a relationship of equals between England, Wales and Scotland. It recognised the political identity of England by saying we should have a Minister for England.
“And there was that interesting proposal for bank holidays based around saints’ days. It wasn’t the complete thing, but if you looked at the 2017 manifesto there was more recognition of England in it than lots of recent manifestos. It’s a good start to build on.
“There’s no doubt that if the Left doesn’t engage in issues of national identity, the Right will. And you’ve seen the problems that social democratic parties have got into right across Europe for failing to tap into this sense of identity.”
Denham is wary of the new Labour Campaign for Free Movement, which aims to change party policy at the Brighton conference to continue EU migration beyond Brexit.
“I think we would say immigration policy very clearly needs to start with what is in the best interest of the people who live here at the moment. That allows for quite a wide range of scope about how much migration should take place,” he said.
“And we know that most people are pretty happy with a balanced level of migration because they know we need skills, but they don’t want the pace of change to be too fast.
“If you end up talking about migration policy as though it’s a matter of principle and the aim of migration policy might be to benefit the migrants rather than people who already live here then you are going to make that very difficult to make that campaign stick.”
“I completely agree with that campaign that stigmatising migrants, pretending that migration is responsible for all our problems, is obviously wrong. And is not necessary. But if you say free movement is more important than many of the other issues we are concerned about, you are also missing the point.
“And when you start having language which makes it sound as though really your ideal would be a situation in which anybody in the world could come here whenever they wanted to, that’s going to be quite hard to turn into popular electoral politics.”
Denham emphasised that his group was not yet formulating detailed policy, but said Brexit opened an opportunity for Labour to have a distinctive English voice.
He pointed out that when Brussels powers over agriculture are returned to Scotland and Wales, for example, there will be a danger that English farmers are directed by the UK as a whole.
“Who is going to make agricultural policy for England? We need to sort these things out for ourselves,” he said.
“English Votes for English Laws [the Government’s reform to allow only English MPs to vote on parts of a bill] has created a formal technical veto. It hasn’t created an English voice.
“You could change English votes for English laws, you could have an English Parliament, I think the democratic principle is that English voters should have the same rights as other voters in other parts of the UK.”