Labour has an English problem. To be more precise, it has four English problems. Most obviously, on any reasonable calculation the party must win England to form a government; only the foolhardy would bank on a full restoration of its fortunes in Scotland. But Labour hasn’t won the English popular vote since 2001.
The English constituencies it has to win are also very different to the metropolitan and university seats that delivered surprises last year. In the main they are towns and small cities, often with a good chunk of coast and countryside. Outside the more prosperous metro-centres, some have lost their former economic purpose. Their voters are older, spent less time in education and were more likely to have voted Leave. Since the 2001 election many of these voters have moved towards the Tories (and, for a time, UKIP), even though many share Labour’s values on public services, redistribution and nationalisation.
These are communities where voters are more likely to stress their English, rather than British, identity. That’s Labour’s third problem. The party lags in support amongst English identifiers. Indeed, if the ‘English’ had voted Labour last year as strongly as the ‘British’ Jeremy Corbyn might well be in Downing Street now. It’s true that there is little English political nationalism of the sort we see in Scotland and Wales. But these English people are proud of their identity and their nation and they want that identity respected. Politics has always been about identity: about who stands for people like me? Labour needs more than radical policy; it needs to be seen as authentically English as well as British.
The final challenge is how to govern England itself. Despite the last Labour government’s massive constitutional reforms to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Supreme Court, human rights, freedom of information and the Lords, England outside of London was left unchanged. It remains the most centralised nation in Europe. Labour’s instincts have always been centralist, but it is hard to see how the huge regional and local disparities of income, health and life opportunities can be tackled without shifting power and resources out of Whitehall.
In response to these four challenges, the English Labour Network has brought together senior figures from across the party in England to call for an English Labour manifesto for the next general election. Recognition of the importance of England cuts across other party fault lines, bring together former Deputy Leader Margaret Beckett MP and Sam Tarry, organiser of Jeremey Corbyn’s re-election; Cllr Nick Forbes, LGA Labour leader, Shabana Mahmood MP and NEC member, and Cllr Joe Ejiofor, Haringey councillor and leading figure in Momentum.
Nick Forbes says: ‘‘Now more than ever we need a vision for England as part of a United Kingdom which is based on fairness, social justice and equality. Local government will have a key part to play in developing such a manifesto’.
The manifesto would offer a clear vision of an England built ‘for the many not the few’. It would help show English people that Labour wants to represent them, rebuilding support amongst Labour’s traditional vote, including areas that have suffered economic decline and whether alienation and dissatisfaction with politics is high. Many areas of policy decided in Westminster are ‘England only’, including health, education, much public transport, social care and agriculture, but nowhere does Labour set out what Labour policies mean for England.
The 2017 UK manifesto was in some ways more clearly English than in other recent elections. It promised a relationship ‘of equals’ between England, Wales and Scotland, a minister for England, and new public holidays including St George’s Day. The crucial question of how England was to be governed was left open, leading to confusion about whether the party backs city-region combined authorities, new regional government, or the continuation of Whitehall control on key issues.
Both Wales and Scotland have Labour manifestos, drawn up by the party in those nations. With Labour’s Democracy Review underway, it’s important that party structures also enable English Labour members to make policy on England only issues.
You could argue that Labour’s fifth challenge is to find the common ground in an England badly divided by age, geography, income, opportunity, race and by the divide between the cosmopolitan liberal values of younger city dwellers and the social conservative (though often economically radical) old voters in the rest of England. To be ‘for the many’ means gaining support from across these divides. An English manifesto could set out how.
John Denham is director of the English Labour Network and a former Labour minister
The ELN’s manifesto is backed by 50 MPs, councillors and activists including MPs Margaret Beckett, Jon Cruddas, Shabana Mahmood, Liam Byrne, council and Labour group leaders Nick Forbes, Judith Blake, Simon Letts, and individual activists including Paul Hilder, Polly Billington, and Sam Tarry