"Labour will never win again unless we recognise patriotism as a progressive value."
This Labour Party conference takes place with Parliament in deadlock. Amid the risk of a cliff-edge ‘no deal’ looming, Theresa May is struggling to win a parliamentary majority for any kind of Brexit.
Yet despite the Tories’ incompetence, the polls remain neck and neck. Our party has failed to make any progress since the 2017 election, when in truth we should be streets ahead.
So, why aren’t we enjoying an unassailable lead? The anti-Semitism crisis is clearly part of the answer to that question, but the truth is that our party’s challenges run far deeper.
In our new book ‘Spirit of Britain, Purpose of Labour’ – written in partnership with a host of influential Labour MPs and thinkers – we seek to identify and address some of these challenges.
The argument at its heart is that our country is more polarised than it has been at any time since the Second World War – by age, education, place and wealth – but above all by values.
On one side of the Great Values Divide we have the Cosmopolitans – typically university educated, urban, highly mobile and confident in the modern, globalised world. On the other the Communitarians – often non-graduates who value familiarity, security and community, and have experienced the profound changes of the last 40 years as loss.
The EU referendum deepened these divides, with the Leave vote coming predominantly from Communitarians who for decades had watched politicians of all stripes failing to intervene whilst globalisation destroyed the industries that had come to shape their communities, and to define their identities.
But, more worryingly still for our Party, Labour’s performance at the 2017 General Election further entrenched the divides. We won votes from groups tending to hold more Cosmopolitan values – younger people, graduates, and those in wealthier areas like Kensington and Canterbury. But we struggled to earn the support of those who left school at 16, the over 50s, and we lost in Communitarian heartlands such as Mansfield and Middlesbrough.
And very little has changed since the summer of 2017 – a recent study showed that the electorate now sees Labour as ‘the party of quinoa’ rather than the party of pies and a pint!
Our party will not win power by doubling down on our Cosmopolitan support base, and nor should it. The ‘one more heave’ strategy is clearly flawed in terms of the electoral arithmetic, as there is no point piling up more votes in areas where we are already winning.
But, more importantly, it would be an inexcusable abdication of our moral duty if we were to become comfortable with being a party that polarises rather than being a party that unites. Community, security, solidarity and localism: these are the core Communitarian values that our Party was founded to promote. To abandon them would be a betrayal of the purpose of Labour.
If we are to stay true to Labour’s values it is critical that we show ourselves to be a whole nation party. In the short term this means backing an EEA-based Brexit, complete with freedom of movement reform, as the only form of Brexit that can bring stability to our economy whilst also beginning the long process of healing our country’s divides.
But in the longer term our party must fundamentally change its mind-set and worldview if we are to truly re-connect with our Communitarian roots. In our book we set out the Six Seismic Shifts that we believe Labour must make, if we are to re-build trust and support in our Communitarians heartlands:
1. We must promote our common values every bit as much as diversity, if we are to help different groups understand each other.
2. We must recognise that the social responsibilities of all citizens – rich or poor – is every bit as important as advancing our rights as individuals.
3. Social mobility is no longer enough – we need to back a system of post-18 education for non-graduates and a bold plan to deliver good jobs beyond the major cities. Dan Jarvis MP suggests introducing ‘Adult Education Funds’ and ‘right to learn days’, while Anna Turley MP and Charlotte Holloway lay out how smart investment can boost their own constituencies of Redcar and Plymouth Moor View, and hundreds more like them.
4. The business community must be seen as a crucial partner – not an obstacle – to delivering a new kind of inclusive, 21st century growth. Trevor Phillips CBE – writing as the former John Lewis Partnership’s President – advocates reforming the Companies Act, more worker ownership and workers on boards.
5. We must see immigration as a market dynamic that needs to be managed. Britsh Future’s Sunder Katwala and Jill Rutter suggest reforms to freedom of movement, and it’s encouraging that Labour’s leadership is now moving in this direction.
6. We must recognise that patriotism, as opposed to nationalism, is an entirely progressive value. It is this final shift which is perhaps most critical.
When Communitarians look at the Hard Left of the Labour Party they see a group of conspiracy theorists so embarrassed by British history and so viscerally opposed to the market that they instinctively support any regime that challenges The West, regardless of that regime’s values, motives or actions. Just look at the Hard Left’s socialism-in-one-country opposition to the EU, or at its foot-dragging reluctance to condemn Russia for the Salisbury attacks.
Ultimately Communitarians worry that the Hard Left doesn’t see Britain as a positive force in the world. And the anti-Semitism crisis has served only to reinforce their view that the people on the Hard Left of our party appear to believe the global economy is run by a shady cabal of Jewish financiers.
If this continues to be the case we will never win power again. And this is what makes Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech on Wednesday the most important for a generation.
When he takes to the stage in Liverpool he has an opportunity to set out the Seismic Shifts that he believes that our party must make, if we are to win the next General Election and re-unite our deeply divided country.
Stephen Kinnock MP and Joe Jervis are editors of Spirit of Britain, Purpose of Labour.
As you’re here, we have something to ask you. What we do here to deliver real news is more important than ever. But there’s a problem: we need readers like you to chip in to help us survive. We deliver progressive, independent media, that challenges the right’s hateful rhetoric. Together we can find the stories that get lost.
We’re not bankrolled by billionaire donors, but rely on readers chipping in whatever they can afford to protect our independence. What we do isn’t free, and we run on a shoestring. Can you help by chipping in as little as £1 a week to help us survive? Whatever you can donate, we’re so grateful - and we will ensure your money goes as far as possible to deliver hard-hitting news.