Beyond the Brexit divide: the English question
This is the paradox: England and the English are ever-present in our culture and politics, yet England – as England – is barely mentioned in national political debate. If English identity is discussed, it is to be disparaged and abused.
The cost of ignoring England and the English has been high. To Remainers, the cost was the overwhelmingly English decision to Leave (with most support from England and from English-identifying voters). Labour has paid the price of lost votes in places and amongst English people once proud to be Labour. Those who want an inclusive society see the persistence - albeit amongst a minority – of an ethnicised and racist national identity.
National identities are much more than flags and football. They offer a ‘world view’; a narrative that explains why ‘people like us’ are the people that we are, why things happen in the way they do, and what we share in common. In a multiple identity society, different national identities have evolved to tell different stories about the experience of different groups of people.
England is diverse, and deep divisions of age, geography, wealth, education and values are reflected in different understandings of national identity. Put crudely, ‘Britishness’ sits more lightly on those for who the modern world – including the EU – works best. ‘Englishness’ has emerged most strongly for those at the rough end of economic and social change. They were as likely to blame the EU than welcome its influence.
Most people say they are English and British, but the emphasis they give to each is significant. The ‘more English’ are also more likely to be rooted in a community, town, county or region, and less likely to see themselves as European. They are more patriotic, and more socially conservative. Less confident about change, their resistance to rapid migration is a reaction to the disruption of established communities more than simple racism. English identity is also strongly linked to powerlessness. They are most likely to want English laws made by English MPs, to resent the Barnet formula and to over-estimate the power of the EU.
They are not, though, ‘English nationalists’, the fantasy promoted by liberal commentators. There is very little English nationalism. Leave was certainly led by Anglo-centric Brits like Johnson and Rees-Mogg, but there is no evidence that English Leavers shared visions of ‘Empire 2.0’. Indeed, they tend to give the union itself low priority. The appeal of ‘take back control’ was the desire to be listened to for once, not a resurrection of past glories.
Many of those lost English voters are older, or poorer, or more working class, and are less likely to have been to university. They are economically precarious and least likely to think it is worth voting at all. If Labour does not exist to work with those people to change the world, it’s not clear what we are for. The good news is that many are on the left on economic issues. But these voters are also English: they are proud to be English (and British too). If Labour is not palpably proud to be an English party and proud to be a British party then we send a clear message: ‘we are not people like you’. Many will not even listen to our policies because most voters look for a party they can identify with before they will listen to policy.
In England more people emphasise their English than British identity, but Labour members tend to be British rather than English and to place little value on national identity or patriotism. Activists prefer to talk about policy and not identity but are often trying to avoid difficult conversations with people who are more socially conservative. We say we are ‘For the many not the few’ but it too often sound as though we don’t like a lot of the many.
We can build a majority to reform capitalism and make it work for the common good, but only if we can unite those who are on the left economically, including those English voters. To do that we have to find common ground across cultural divides. Bringing England and the English into our politics is an important place to start.
To start with, the left must signal that it wants to represent those voters, and that we are willing to have the difficult discussions on issues like migration they want to talk about. We should work to end the marginalisation of England and the English in our political life. Why, for example, does Labour talk about Rebuilding British in England, but Rebuilding Scotland north of the border? Education and social care are devolved, so our national education and national care services are only for England. Why don’t we call them English national services? Labour should publish a manifesto for England, as proposed by the English Labour Network.
We should be at ease with celebrating an inclusive patriotic English identity. Shadow Communities Secretary Andrew Gwynne recently backed calls for CLPs to celebrate St George’s Day and support Labour’s plans for four new national bank holidays.
In turn, the left must challenge England’s double democratic deficit to make England’s nationhood and political identity a reality. It is the only part of the UK where voters cannot elect representatives to make national laws, nor is there any forum for national political debate. The UK government has made England the most centralised state in Europe and given disproportionate investment to London at the expense of England’s regions. England needs both national democratic institutions and entrenched statutory devolution of financial and executive power to elected local leadership. Labour’s promised constitutional convention could bring this about, but it needs preparing now and to start with urgency.
Crucially, the left must learn to frame its radical ambitions for economic changes in the language of progressive patriotism, something that earlier Labour figures (including Attlee and Benn) took for granted. Challenging, for example, who owns companies, land, utilities and resources are national and democratic questions, not just socialist.
Brexit happened, in part, because no one wanted to listen to the English. Can Labour learn the lesson?
Prof John Denham, former Labour Cabinet Minister and Director of the English Labour Network.
The industrial revolution, starting in the 19th century, transformed our economy and our country for good and for bad. But some of the most important lessons to learn from centuries of advancing technology changing how we work is that if we, the left, can embrace change and shape it for the benefit of workers, this change can be a blessing, rather than a curse.
History tells us that in the long run, technology can be a net creator of jobs. The introduction of machines into industrial production brought skilled jobs and better pay over time. With the help of government action and a reform of how our economy works, the growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation can do the same for many of today’s workers.
In the last few decades, we have seen a fundamental shift in the nature of work in the British economy. Through the decline in manufacturing and the growth in insecure jobs, the traditional working class has seen huge changes. The decline of Trade Union power has been a major contributory factor in the growth of inequality. That decline in organisation of workers has seen an increase to exploitation in parts of our economy, for example in non-unionised warehouse operations or in some parts of the gig economy. Trade unions played a crucial part in delivering greater prosperity alongside vital improvements in working conditions and safety at work. Unions are as relevant today as ever as technological change puts workers at risk in an unequal power relationship with some employers.
The example of Hermes and their deal with the GMB which gives better pay and conditions to self-employed couriers shows what is possible for workers. Hermes’ management recognised the value of their workers and the importance of looking after their people. The concept of treating staff well if you want good service for your customers is pretty obvious to many responsible business people. Hermes and the GMB have demonstrated how it can work in practice. The deal also demonstrates the potential for responsible employers to partner with unions and to show leadership to other businesses who see workers as a cost to their bottom line, rather than an investment in the success of their business and as real people, who are helping management to deliver success for the enterprise.
Christine Lagarde, Chair of the International Monetary Fund, in 2013 said that she believes “the economics profession and policy community have downplayed inequality for too long. Now all of us have a better understanding that a more equal distribution of income allows for more economic stability, more sustained economic growth, and healthier societies.” Legarde’s point is that tackling inequality isn’t just to the benefit of the lowest-paid in society, it would benefit the wider economy as a whole.
We are going to see growing levels of automation in the workforce as technology advances and massive corporations look for more ways to decrease costs and increase profits. However, as a labour movement, we must fight for a future where work matters, not a future where work becomes a luxury with an army not at work. We must fight for a future where work is shared, including a reduced working week. Work defines and workers define themselves by the job they do. If you get talking to someone on the train or bus, it is likely that one of the first questions that will be asked is “so, what do you do?”. It comes down to the ‘dignity of work’ and its importance to people’s sense of self.
We then have to define why good work matters. How workers are treated by their employer matters. Employees being able to see clear paths for progression and wage growth matters. Workers being given a voice in how their employer is managed matters. Being paid a real living wage which means that workers don’t have to pick up other jobs to make ends meet and can feel comfortable financially matters. These are all factors which contribute to a ‘good job’ and we should be striving to ensure that not only do we reach full employment but that every worker can have a ‘good job’ where they are valued and they feel comfortable. That is how companies and countries can best succeed. All the more important now because ‘good work’ is fundamental to tackling the politics of discontent, the millions of people who believe that the world of work and the country they live in no longer works for them.
As automation spreads further across industry, work is going to change and workers are going to need the skills to change with it. It has long been recognised that a major effort is necessary to improve the skills of many British workers and college leavers. Skills and decent jobs need to be located as a central part of an intelligent industrial strategy that works to Britain’s strengths and adapts as industry changes. The basic elements of a system already exist in the form of industrial councils and industry skills partnerships; and this consensus needs to be built on. There is a need to increase investment in training and there is a case to use tax relief to help achieve this. Employers who do not train and rely on poaching should support financially those who do.
The whole skills agenda needs a boost to make it more attractive, more glamorous and more central to the life of the country. At present vocational education and training is too often regarded as inferior to academic education and yet it is crucial to personal, corporate and national success.
Through a period of fundamental change in our economy, Trade Unions and representation at work is going to be more important than ever before. But there are now just 6.5 million people who are members of trade unions in the UK. This is down from 7 million at the start of this decade, and from a peak of 13 million in 1979. Strong Trade Unions are essential for better conditions for workers, as well as a successful, fully-functioning economy. Studies have shown that where levels of collective bargaining are lower, inequality tends to be higher. Labour must, therefore, as a matter of public policy, seek to strengthen Trade Union power after the withering away we have seen under the Tories.
For 20 years or so, the UK economy has seen a steady shift away from wages and salaries, in favour of profits. Most of the resulting fall in the wage share has been borne by the lowest paid and the weakening bargaining power of labour has played a prominent role in this. Trade Unions need a changed framework of power if they are to become more effective and change the dynamic in favour of the worker.
A Labour Government should therefore seek to put in place measures to encourage collective bargaining at sector levels and to secure fair pay across the UK. The objective could be to establish Joint Councils or Living Wage Councils of employers and unions, on a sectoral basis, which are given incentives and encouragement to agree decent minimum rates (including overtime rates), hours, holidays and pensions, together with procedures for union recognition; and also for the handling of disputes and grievances. It is in the clear interest of better employers to spread their good practices and decent pay rates to competitors who may be undercutting them. Fair treatment of workers, therefore, and fair competition, not driven by a race to the bottom, are complimentary, not conradictory. That’s why employers like Hermes need support and encouragement from government so that their attempts to deliver a fair settlement are not undermined by competitors who would rather cut corners and pay less to undercut them.
There are already sector skills councils, such as in the automotive and construction sectors, and it has been Labour Party policy to encourage employers and unions to build on these in the direction of collective bargaining, for example in the care and hospitability sectors.
New autonomous and AI technologies present challenges to the labour movement and the progressive left across the Western world. But the technology being developed, alongside the economic opportunities available should be presented as exciting optimistic signs of the benefits of new technology. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates the economic benefits of decarbonising the global economy are $26 trillion. Such potential should be presented to give hope to those facing the challenge of change at work.
Since the financial crash a decade ago, we have seen falling living standards, stagnating wages and an increase in insecure work. It is vital that through action by a Labour Government and collaboration with Trade Unions, the world of work of the future is one which provides good work for all through higher wages, strong workers’ rights, natural paths of progression, high levels of available retraining and increasing Trade Union density. Such an analysis sits alongside the potential for business to benefit from economic opportunities which follow from environmental and other societal necessities. The potential risks from technological change are significant. The impact on workers must be addressed. But the potential for an economy which delivers for businesses and for workers has in fact never been higher either. We should seize the opportunity with both hands.
Today’s globalised capitalism, based on the needs of Wall Street and the City of London, prioritises capital ahead of production. Wealth and investment is no longer confined by national boundaries, and over the forty years since Thatcher ushered it in to the UK, it has allowed globalised corporations to move skilled jobs abroad, or to import cheaper labour to the UK, in order to drive down wage costs and drive up returns to shareholders. So once proud and prosperous manufacturing towns saw their factories and steel mills replaced by call centres, which were themselves then replaced by warehouses and pizza shops. Exploitation became global but the effects were very local. This globalised exploitation cannot be met with a local response – it has to be global too.
Yet the mantra was always that governments can’t intervene, as though the free market was truly sacrosanct. Democratically elected governments were the only block to globalised corporations doing what they wanted with impunity, so the capitalists forged a new orthodoxy, telling the government to butt out. Michael Hesletine’s pledge as Tory Environment Secretary to “intervene before breakfast, dinner and tea” – or was it “lunch and dinner” ? - may have been startling at the time but it was still stamped upon.
New Labour’s response was to focus not on defending existing jobs, but on reskilling and the use of the tax and benefits system to minimise financial distress; an option quickly removed by the Tories and LibDems after 2010.
So with national governments unwilling to act against the globalised market fundamentalists, much of the response to globalisation has been to focus on the local: devolution of some powers over spending decisions followed by devolution of limited government resources. Which all too often means devolution of Tory austerity and with it the removal of responsibility for central government to take further action to support local and regional growth. Too many on the left have seen devolution as the answer to Tory austerity and the squeeze of globalism, when regional and sub-regional government without the necessary resources will simply exacerbate the problem and increase people’s sense of the futility of politics, as another layer of government is denied the resources to make radical improvements in people’s lives.
The problem has been further exacerbated as much of the devolution has been centred around the large urban areas with their figurehead directly elected mayors. Smaller towns and more rural areas are squeezed out by the big cities which are sucking in investment and political attention, so squeezing out the towns. Town centres diminish as wages stagnate. So a further divide is not just between town and country, but between city and town, as a mish-mash of different local government arrangements is used to deliver different forms of devolution, to address a national problem of under-investment often not caused by domestic power structures at all but by Conservative austerity and global capitalism sucking wealth out of the UK.
It has been a hugely successful tactic of the Conservatives to deny local and regional government the resources to deliver successfully the services people need to halt the national decline, and then to blame those local councils and mayors when services fail. So school and children’s services budgets have been slashed, and we have lost 21,000 police officers nationally, but an increase in knife crime is apparently all down to Sadiq Khan.
As Labour found after 1997, its big plans for regional government, so desperately desired outside London during the Thatcher-Major years, dissolved to nothing after two years of the Labour government when folk had a government they felt really cared for all of the UK. So rebalancing of power must come with a genuine end to austerity, with real resources to councils and mayors and whatever structure is in place; but crucially it must also come with a national government strategy committed to actively defending the UK against pillaging global corporations value- stripping the UK; committed to redistribution; and specifically sharing growth fairly across the UK, rebalancing the UK economy to towns as well as cities and to rural as well as urban, so that no region gets left behind. Devolution on its own is no solution at all.
Plans to allow councils to keep all their business rates must be resisted: richer Tory areas will simply get richer, and their business rates income will be used to depress council tax rates, so giving them artificial political credit for a low council tax they do not deserve. Fairness in redistribution must remain the bedrock of a socialist government programme.
The answer to the threat of globalised capitalism cannot be simply devolution of Tory austerity, nor even more money for regions under a Labour government: a government that is prepared to stand and fight for the people who elected it is a government on the side of the people and against de-skilling and exploitation. Communities may fight for the minimum-wage, zero-hour scraps provided by an Amazon warehouse on a former manufacturing site, but the government must enforce proper employment and union rights and make companies like Amazon pay their proper share of tax on UK operations. An active government, willing to overturn the orthodoxy of 40 years of neo-liberalism and get tough with the globalised exploiters would be a good start in defending the communities left behind, and restore people’s faith that politics can work for them again .
Our country faces an existential challenge far deeper than the immediate issues in the current Brexit debate. Every corner you turn in Parliament at the moment are people having conversations about immediate challenges of Brexit. But that debate is far from what it needs to be. If the Brexit story is to deliver any benefit at all, it has to start with renewed focus on the deeper causes of Brexit, and our journey to address them.
The absence of a proper debate that also engages and informs the public has been a characteristic of the post-referendum period where the debate has continued down the fault lines set by the referendum campaigns.
Whilst the Leave campaign have been successfully challenged on substance (£350bn for the NHS, easiest trade deal in history etc) – they have certainly won on emotion and narrative. The story they told about our nation travelled and resonated across the country. The most powerful words in politics – “take back control” has still yet to be properly understood. It needs to be and to be understood by the left. Until we do so, and own this emotionally as well as in policy, we will struggle to unite across the fault line between leavers and remainers which continues to persist.
At the heart of this has to be an analysis of power and where it lies, and of its counterpart – powerlessness. Just a quick canter through an MP’s caseload will give clues. Powerlessness in getting a job, in getting repairs done to your home, in getting a home or stopping an unfair eviction, in getting redress from difficult neighbours, in getting the police to respond after a crime is reported, in stopping drug dealing in the alley around the corner, in stopping a community or youth centre being closed down. The list goes on. The national version is also evident. Getting trains to run on time. Preventing the demise of the steel industry or now car manufacturing. Stopping delays to your hospital appointments. Seeing no pay rise as food prices, bus fares and rent go up.
In such a context, national statistics about growth in the economy seem irrelevant if there is no visible impact on the challenges people face in their everyday lives. More so than before, and with potentially worse to come if the economy goes through a deep downturn, there is a growing narrative on the failure of globalisation and the rise of the voice of the “left behinds”. The rise of that voice is for good reason – a deep inequality of power socially, politically and economically that has come to manifest itself in the power of “taking back control”.
The economic failure of globalisation, the failure of mainstream politics and the withdrawal of the state under austerity has also led to a growth of identity politics and the rise of the “other”. Our cultures have become more focussed on that which divides us, not that which unites us. Tackling the economics and the politics is vital if we are set to reverse the social divides. The steady rise in hate crime is a testament to this. Cameron and Osborne have also choked off the working class communities and resources that went into them. The paradox we face is of communities most hit by austerity now seeing a Tory-led Brexit as the solution to the problems they genuinely face.
So how must public policy on the left address this? Some important responses to this have recently been laid out by Ian Bremmer in his latest book. His ideas include a new role for the state and a Government, meeting the needs of citizens and bringing people together rather than building walls, a new definition of social contract, a re-focus on what we mean by “social security”, a new focus on the pursuit of happiness.
He’s right about this as a place to start but on its own it doesn’t go far enough. But there are two key challenges. Firstly, how do we link the solutions to the challenge of the lack of control? How can we see a public services reform agenda that can demonstrate how citizens and communities can take back control. How can devolution strategies be seen to respond to this. If all we see is devolution of responsibility without resources, we are set to fail. Central to this has to be the role of the state.
Secondly, we cannot address the issue of taking back control in isolation. We need to define a new internationalism, a renewed sense of purpose about our place in the world and what we want to achieve. As an example, Gordon Brown saw the development of Africa as a moral purpose and drew in the rest of the world. It was a conversation that we had in the Party and outside, that drew in movements for economic justice and symbolised our place and purpose. In contrast, we see today the rise of the right, the success of “take back control” in Trump’s America following the Brexit referendum and the momentum in different direction with a fragmented left struggling to redefine itself. The Tory right are leading the way with the story of our nation. It’s vital for the left to respond with an alternative narrative to the post-imperialist story that has become a new and dominant paradigm.
These deep questions – a domestic reform agenda for the redistribution of power through devolution and a re-focus on a positive national identity with a new left internationalist narrative about our place in the world are more urgent than ever. In just a few short years, Britain has gone from a nation that won the Olympics bid based on a story of diversity and global outlook, to becoming a nation with a rise of nationalism and fundamental questioning about our history, our nation and even our Union. Something has deeply broken. Our economy has grown less than last year with worse to come. People are less happy and less secure.
As people can no longer look to the next generation being better off than that last, I believe we are witnessing the ending of a post-Cold War consensus on prosperity which we took for granted.
The UK has a choice to make. What role do we want to play in the world, and how and who do we want to influence. We need to be sure of our direction as a nation. Unless we resolve the question of our identity and role in the world, we’ll struggle to win the prize of tackling the domestic questions that are so critical to bring our nation back together and lead an agenda that sees people take back greater control of their lives and their communities.
The need for workers to have a collective voice, first industrially and then politically has shaped the Labour movement in this country for well over a century now. But in the century ahead, changes in the way the economy will operate means that work will not exist in the same way as in the past, and there will quite possibly be a lot less of it about than now.
Constitutional change is perhaps not the sexiest subject in British politics. It is, however, of critical importance if Labour is serious about transferring power and democratising our country.
Over two years has passed since the EU referendum. And in that time, millions of hours and columns inches have been spent debating both its causes and its consequences. Though any desire to find a single common cause will always result in either frustration or over simplification, I do believe that one phrase had particular significance, that of “taking back control”. This phrase didn’t just resonate with the millions who voted Leave, it also resonated with millions of people who voted Remain. And the reason it did, was less to do with our membership of the EU, than it was the resentment people feel towards the economic and political status quo.
Karl Marx is back in fashion. And for good reason. The 200th birthday of Trier’s greatest son was the trigger for an extraordinary wave of re-appreciation: ‘Happy Birthday Karl Marx. You Were Right!’ ran the New York Times; ’more relevant than ever’ said the Financial Times. ‘Surprisingly relevant’ wrote the Economist.