What the left should take from Rochester and Strood

Majorities have group identities just like minorities, and that's fine.

Majorities have group identities just like minorities, and that’s fine

UKIP now has its second MP in the form of Mark Reckless, whose decision to defect has albeit reduced his majority from 9,953 in 2010 to 2,920.

So what should the Labour Party – and the left more broadly – take from UKIP’s latest triumph?

Labour really do look out of touch

Labour held the Rochester and Strood seat until 2010; yet four years later the party has seemingly surrendered the seat without a fight. Emily Thornberry also managed to snatch some of the ignominy of defeat from the Conservatives by tweeting a photo which appeared to express shock at the sight of an England flag draped from a bedroom window.

It’s easy to put this down to an innocent misjudgement on the Labour frontbencher’s part, but there are a not insignificant number of people on the left – people who I agree with about most things – who really do view the sight of a British or English flag (for some reason the flags of other countries don’t count) with unadulterated horror.

This helps to explain why UKIP’s line about a ‘metropolitan elite’ is so effective. Most people view the flying of an England flag as a relatively harmless affair, even if they don’t much go in for flags themselves. Yet many liberals view flag-flying as a form of coded racism. Patriotism is supposed to be irrational and intelligent people are meant to transcend or sneer at it, or something like that. In reality most people aren’t raging nationalists, but nor are they terrified of any expression of national sentiment. Majorities have group identities just like minorities, and that’s fine.

UKIP must be pinned down

As Dave Osler wrote earlier today, ‘The more concretely we paint UKIP as a pointless third-rate Thatcher tribute band, the more effective it will prove’. UKIP can’t pose as libertarians yet oppose same-sex marriage and support tougher border controls. Nor can the party claim to represent the interests of working class voters while intimating that it might privatise the NHS given half a chance. You can’t have a dish of fried snowballs and you can’t have reheated Thatcherism with socialist characteristics.

If UKIP continues to win over disgruntled Tories who dislike the liberal direction of society that’s one thing, but Labour and the wider left ought to draw attention to UKIP’s Thatcherite and privatising bent. The so-called ‘left behind voters’ may have concerns about immigration, but they also have concerns about jobs and whether there will be an NHS in 10 years time.

There is plenty of scope for social justice here – the meat and drink of  a politician like Ed Miliband. Unlike their leader Nigel Farage, UKIP voters are bothered about things like economic inequality; and however much UKIP politicians like Paul Nuttall MEP play up their left-leaning economic credentials, the party is led by an unapologetic heir of Thatcher. It’s time to capitalise on that.

Listen to the sensible voices on immigration

By that I mean neither the anti-immigrant obsessives nor the open border liberals (although I wouldn’t wish to compare the two in terms of sentiment). The think tank British Future released some excellent research this week showing that a majority of the public sit neither at the rejectionist pole nor the ultra-liberal one. Most people don’t want to pull up the drawbridge but nor are they comfortable with the high level of immigration Britain currently has; they want something in between.

The research also rejected the crude assumption that racial prejudice is the cause of most if not all opposition to immigration. When respondents were asked to choose which of a list of attributes was most important to being British, half said respecting people’s right to freedom of speech was the most important thing; 46 per cent said respect for the law; and 41 per cent said speaking English. Only six per cent chose ‘being white’.

This is hugely encouraging. It also indicates that, beyond a small proportion of obsessives, the ‘bigot’ explanation for worries  about immigration is well wide of the mark. Neither open nor closed borders but something in between: centre-left politicians can work with this.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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41 Responses to “What the left should take from Rochester and Strood”

  1. Asteri

    “but there are a not insignificant number of people on the left – people who I agree with about most things – who really do view the sight of a British or English flag (for some reason the flags of other countries don’t count) with unadulterated horror.”

    There is something about the English flag that is just screams tacky and low class, that photo does just some up what I associate it with – white vans and the working class. I think this must be down to the fact that you never really see the England flag other than when its used for football, normally flying out of a council estate window or pinned against the back of a white van drivers compartment with a 3 men in paint stained tracksuits in the front seats. I do understand where she was coming from but also why it was so damaging, as it did just some up the middle class contempt for the working class in this country, they believe they want whats best for them but, secretly despise them and don’t want them or the culture anywhere near them.

  2. Mark Myword

    The English flag flies all day, every day, over my Parish Church! It is the Church of England after all.

  3. GhostofJimMorrison

    as it did just some up the middle class contempt for the working class in this country..

    That would be your own middle class contempt, then.

  4. Ringstone

    You’d think the condescending middle class would be able to spell “sum”.

  5. Asteri

    Well, I think I can be cut some* slack in that I’m not actually English (or British) it’s not my fault your language has an absurd amount of Homophones.

  6. Ringstone

    Fair enough, especially as my second language is schoolboy Franglais!

  7. Asteri

    I can’t get right which letter to put the accents on in my own language to be honest.

  8. AlanGiles

    Ms Thornbury has done nothing others have done and got away with – remember Mandy Mandelson in 1998 saying “horny handed sons of toil are not needed by New Labour” at Conference, and more recently Umunna complaining about people he considers beneath him spoiling his clubbing?

  9. GhostofJimMorrison

    It wasn’t your mistaken grammar I took offence at; it was the way you went from saying flying the English flag was ‘tacky and lower class’ to berating the middle-classes and ‘contempt’ for the working classes’.

  10. Ricayboy

    The best way to make sure that the english flag has positive connotations is to fly it as much bas the Scottish and Welsh fkags are. Then nobody can assuse it of having been hijacked.

  11. Ricayboy

    I agree, that perception exists (although I know plenty of middle class people who love their flag) but isn’t that because most of the establishment and upper classes have abandoned it? French intellectuals and socialists love their flag. Who can blame us if our own English upper classes despise ours?

  12. TN

    Given how pro-immigration this blog is (as well as LFF’s constant UKIP hatchet jobs), an article like this is disingenuous doublespeak.

  13. TN

    Shhhh, don’t remind the Blairite/Eustonite left of this blog of these events…

  14. Guest

    Ah, the upper class contempt for the middle class, projecting your attitudes downwards.

  15. Leon Wolfeson

    They love the French flag. Which equates to the British flag, not the English one!

  16. Leon Wolfeson

    “centre-left politicians can work with this.”

    And what does that have to do with Labour? Can you please stop the nonsensical false comparisons?

  17. GhostofJimMorrison


  18. Asteri

    The English flag (or rather St. George’s Cross) is aesthetically bad because that amount white just looks tacky and there are very few flags that are that white (except Japan and Georgia) if it was a white cross on a red background I don’t think it would be viewed the same way.

    France’s flag is also revolutionary and intertwined with a modern concept of the nation state, whereas Englands flag is just the flag of a saint who had nothing to do with England and who lived at a time when no English nation or people existed. It was only chosen to distinguish English knights in the crusades and so really it does not represent anything English or have anything to do with England as a nation.

  19. littleoddsandpieces

    UKIP is not a left leaning political party, but a splinter Tory party with the same views on austerity cuts and the recession being caused by the poor and public spending.

    Labour lost because it is also now a Tory party, with no socialist credentials.

    Labour will leave its most faithful loyal voters, of the over 50s with NIL STATE PENSION FOR LIFE by not repealing the Pension Bills 2010-2014.


    As Labour’s Mr Balls saying Labour will continue Tory spending cuts and be even harder on welfare reform than the Tories, then the over 60s have no reason to vote Labour, being left as they are on benefit for the rest of their lives, in or out of work. The bulk of the poor are in work today.

    But what Rochester and Strood really showed was The Greens being timid and not comprehending the new unique policy set that solves poverty and starvation forever in England and Wales with their 2015 manifesto pledges, they seem shy of telling us all about it:

    – universal and automatic Citizen Income, non-withdrawable

    that replaces all the cruel and lost benefits regime

    – Bettered State Pension, giving a full state pension to all citizens

    leaving no citizen with NIL STATE PENSION FOR LIFE or a tiny pro rata basic pension or reducing the state pension still further from its lowest rate of all rich nations bar poor Mexico.


  20. W.E

    This is a LABOUR issue caused by that stupid Emily Thornberry. I love how James Bloodworth and Left Foot Forward in general uses it to turn on the left in general (as they have about other issues). It not only stinks of tribalism to Labour, it’s another way to aimlessly bash the wider left yet again. You don’t name a single left wing party or group in this piece other than saying “the left” like it’s a blanket term.

  21. Julia

    Nicola Sturgeon is doing a sell out tour of Scotland.
    Today (Saturday afternoon) she is at the Hydro in Glasgow – All 12,000 seats sold and almost the same number have been trying to get on the waiting list.
    Every venue has been sold out but the BBC would rather cover a guy drinking a pint and smoking (Farage).

    The media are manipulating the news not reporting it!

    How would the Greens do in the polls with the same level of coverage the BBC affords UKIP.
    Westminster is only part of the problem. The rich and powerful control information…well they did. Social media has taken over and a new newspaper (the national) created by activists will hit the streets of Scotland on Monday.

    Political change is required but why did England let the Right fill the vacuum instead of the Left?

  22. Just Visiting

    That’s right.
    Whereas even the BF’s own survey shows that only 7% of the UK find immigration so beneficial it doesn’t need to be controlled!

    I remember back in the day at Liberal Conspiracy, it was commonplace to hear people advocate open borders and no controls! How out of touch with the population that was is now obvious.

  23. Just Visiting

    James you wrote:
    > British Future .. research this week showing that a majority of the public sit neither at the rejectionist pole nor the ultra-liberal one.

    Is quite true – but that was quite cynically done by BF in how they asked their questions.
    They quite carefully did not ask whether respondents thought we had the right level of immigration now, or too little or too much: and what people felt about the option for more.

    Those answers would have perhaps been uncomfortable for BF…

    So instead they phrased questions with the intent that all but the unpleasant racists would end up in the middle!

    Eg, asking people sill questions like the following, tell us nothing: as all sensible democratically minded people can only agree:
    > The public should have a say in the decisions that are made about immigration…The government should tell us … so we can make an informed decision about what’s best for Britain.”

  24. Ricayboy

    But the British flag is the banner of Empire and the NF. It is also the ‘butchers apron’ so beloved in Scotland and Wales. The point I was making is that many countries have far right groups who use the national flags, but few people shun those flags because if it. Why should it be different with the English flag?

  25. Ricayboy

    I think that it is a very smart, distinctive flag but that’s not really the point. The flag has become the accepted emblem of England, even featuring prominently in the Union Flag. If someone wants to design a better flag then we can have a debate about that.

  26. Julia

    This change of direction by the Labour Party should worry every socialist.

  27. swat

    The SUN trying to set the political Agenda.
    Milliband’s messed up again and fallen into their trap by sacking Emily, when in fact Milliband should have resigned for a disastrous term as Leader.

  28. Leon Wolfeson

    “But the British flag is the banner of Empire and the NF”


  29. Guest

    No surprise you’re trying to destroy the middle class.

  30. Guest

    Exactly, all so true it’s too boring to object to. Thanks for thus agreeing with my point, and admitting formally and for the record you’re upper class.

  31. Guest

    Given there’s plenty of controls, you’re obviously in a far smaller set who don’t understand any of them.

  32. Leon Wolfeson

    You’re about two decades two late on that.

  33. Leon Wolfeson

    Yes yes, no leader going into a GE is a wonderful idea.
    I dislike Labour strongly but even I can see that’s idiotic.

  34. Guest

    So the same copypasta rant with a Hamas-loving site link and a few words at the top…I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion you’re spamming.

  35. Grouchy Oldgit

    judge not…

  36. Ricayboy

    Is it not though?

  37. Leon Wolfeson

    You might see it that way.

  38. Ricayboy

    The fact is that the English cross of St George has only come into relatively widespread use since the 1990s. Before that all far-right organisations tended to use the British Union Flag. If you see pictures of the National Front marching they nearly always used the Union flag. The English Defence League are Unionists and use the Union Flag as much as the English flag. I would put it to you that all contemoprary ‘right wing’ groups, the BNP, Britain First etc. are far more wedded to ‘Britishness’ and the British flag than any sense of Englishness.

    As for the British flag, it is widely known as the ‘Butchers Apron’ in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The so-called British flag is not appreciated and used equally in all parts of the United Kingdom and there are many people (though not all) in the other home nations who would not touch it with a barge pole.

    The British flag was the flag used widely in the British Empire and is a controversial symbol in many former colonies. The English flag has never really been hi-jacked by any group despite what certain people keep telling us. The problem is that while they are happy for the Scots to be Scottish and the Welsh to be Welsh they want all the English to maintain a British identity and to see Englishness as racist and exclusive. I am for a healthy, celebratory, inclusive English identity and a positive use of the English flag.

  39. Guest

    The English flag is exclusionary of the British (which I consider myself), as far as I’m concerned, and your dislike for the British flag shows that you seem to hold that view.

    Oh, some sports events etc. there might be good reason to fly it, but the English flag is beloved of the far right today for good reason. Your denials of that are telling – inclusive is the last thing it is, and your unintentional self-description is apt.

  40. Ricayboy

    Is the Scottish flag exclusionary of the British? Or the Welsh one?

    Why the heck should the English flag be considered any more exclusive than those others? It is available for all English people of all backgrounds to use just as the British flag is.

    Why should I use a flag that is largely neglected in vast swathes of what is supposedly my country? Why should I use a flag which symbolises a British elite that is seeking to expunge an ancient nation and replace it with a bogus British identity that is really Englishness by any other name anyway?

    The Scots and Welsh are proud of their identities and I along with some 70% of people in England consider myself English first and foremost. I will only support the Union as long as it serves the needs of the English nation.

    Even the most ardent unionist in Scotland is a proud Scot. It puzzles me why some English people are wedded to a ‘British only’ identity. Look how close Scotland came to leaving the Union.

    As I took pains to explain above, the English flag is used less frequently than the Union Flag by right-wing groups. The way to stop it being supposedly associated with any particular political stance is to use it everywhere on all occassions.

    If we want the Union to survive we need to give England the same rights to identity and representation as the other home nations, otherwise Britishness is a farce and the Union will surely disintegrate.

  41. Ricayboy

    By the way, I used to consider myself both English and British but it was attitudes like yours that turned me off any loyalty to ‘Britishness.’ I know an increasing number of people who feel the same.

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