Labour Needs a New Vehicle to Reunite England

11/07/2016 16:38 | Updated 11 July 2016
Peter Nicholls / Reuters

The social democratic parties of western Europe are being swept away. The global economy is destroying their base but they have barely begun to look for a new one. They cling to the belief that the instincts of a educated metropolitan middle class stands for all that is good in the progressive tradition.

The awful truth is that, had Remain won by 52%-48%, we would not have seen half the column inches, tweets and blogs agonising about our divided nation. Yet we would have been no less di-vided. Just as many people would have felt 'this doesn't feel like my country any more'; it just would have been the other half of the country. As in so many other countries, the left's activists (and we can stretch that to include the Greens and the LibDems) sit on one side of the divide. Many of Labour's voters and former voters sit on the other.

Labour doesn't face an existential crisis because of the current leadership impasse. The problem is that neither of the contesting wings of Labour have set out a politics that can build a progressive majority across the current divide. Whichever MP advocated a new 'pro-business, pro-EU, moder-ate' Labour Party this week is no more prepared to set foot outside their comfort zone than Mo-mentum. To win we will need to go to places we haven't been before.

Social democracy's historic challenge - to hold capital to account and bend markets to the public good - remains as vital and important as ever. The illusion that we could simply work with the most dynamic parts of global capitalism to produce the wealth for a good society have now been shat-tered. Free markets left to themselves will always generate concentrations of power, wealth and self-interested influence. Global capitalism can be extraordinarily dynamic and creative. It can also be appallingly destructive of security, living standards, communities and human relationships.

It may be no accident that the destructive forces are so powerful in the UK. No country has gone as far in allowing the take-over of British owned companies, the penetration of private companies into the ownership and management of the public sphere, the acquisition of our land and homes by foreign companies, or in the penetration of corrupt overseas money into our financial, legal and property markets. No country has gone as far in abandoning the notion of a common good in fa-vour of the outcomes of markets. A good society will always need dynamic markets; it will also need a constant challenge to their distortions and abuses. For that, the left needs a popular majori-ty.

But the old ways of creating this majority are disappearing. The background to the cultural wars ripping England apart is the destruction, by economic change, of the old organised industrial work-ing class and its culture of solidarity and reciprocity. Modern capitalism doesn't just produce ever widening inequality by wealth, geography and age; our ways of life and our experiences have nev-er been more diverse, so stratified by education, opportunity, privilege, employment, ethnicity and age. We can sometimes seem to share little with our neighbours, let alone those we do not know. Diminishing numbers of people have ever experienced the solidarity generated by the working class movement; for many others it is a memory, not the lived reality of today. Communities that were lionised by the middle class left for their solidarity in the coal and steel disputes of the 1980s are now disparaged for their dalliance with populism.

But just as capitalism is undermining one source of collective resistance, it is opening the door to another. In the face of globalised insecurity, people are turning to a new politics of identity; a new source of strength and willingness to work together. Across Europe, the most dynamic political forces are those of nation, people and place. In our own country it is the parties that have built po-litical relationships with voters on a sense of 'who we are' and 'who stands for people like us' that are growing. It's why the SNP in Scotland has displaced Labour; it's why UKIP can talk of taking much of Labour's vote; it helps explain the relative success of Labour in Wales, and the appeal of Syriza in Greece (The least dynamic forces are those of disappearing identities - the industrial working class and, less remarked but still true, an older conservatism of tradition, services and sta-tus that is also discomforted by globalised market capitalism.)

The politics of nation, people and place have not been created by the right, but the right has been much quicker to exploit it, and to define the terms of the debate. The dangers are real, but so are the opportunities. National identity bridges the gulfs emerging across our society; in the places we live often we have our strongest shared identities. In both the majority say that 'the people' is all the people who live here, not those of one ethnicity, faith or class. The left's challenge and oppor-tunity is to forge a new relationship with voters, based on nation, people and place; one that tells the story of England's future (and within the Union) as the people that built a nation based on pro-gressive values. At it's heart will be the national purpose of bending capital to the common good.

Nations are created, not discovered. England's future story is not yet told. Labour needs to create a vehicle for the politics of nation building. We need an English Labour movement, with a new appeal to north and south, to unite people and find common ground, and tell a progressive patriotic national story.

John Denham is a former Labour MP and Cabinet Minister and is Professor of English Identity and Politics at Winchester University