LABOUR needs to find its own version of Scotland’s ‘civic nationalism’ south of the Border if it is to rebuild, writes Pat Kane
The Edstone has hit the ground, but the dust clouds show no sign of settling and it’ll be a while before any red-green shoots poke through the shards. On Saturday, I took myself to a centre-left conference in London – Radical Hope, organised by the Compass group (nominally centre-left Labour, but now calling itself an “open tribe”) – to sample the mood.
What could the equivalent of a Yes campaign, or a Common Weal, be for London?
I did so in a comradely fashion, tinged with real regret. Those who voted “YeSNP” last week (including Scottish Greens like me) looked forward to a “progressive” Westminster majority, using the numbers to painstakingly but substantially reform the British state, and Scotland’s relationship to it.
It’s these good, smart people, these open-minded activists, who would have been buzzing around between the expected political blocs (SNP and Labour). They would have been forging the connective tissue to build a body of like-minded MPs, who might have acted to cancel Trident, or push for electoral proportional representation and the abolition of the House of Lords, or move away from strict public-spending austerity.
But here I was, in yet another London Left conference under a Tory government (I’ve attended too many of these over the years), with some genuinely stricken people.
It felt extraordinary to listen to Jon Cruddas MP – who was in charge of UK Labour’s policy review – voice his dismay. Cruddas satirised the current leadership candidates as being “like Duracell bunnies going round, shouting louder and louder, ‘Aspiration! Aspiration!’”
He complained of the “technicians” around Ed Miliband, who batted away most of his thoughtful range of policies around housing or banking or public services. They believed they could crawl over the line, relying on Ukip voters hurting Tories and Liberal Democrats melting to Labour (political calculus: wrong wrong wrong). They thought they could “game the electorate by making a few clever policy offers”.
I like Cruddas, as I like many of the London Left – they’re funny, ideas-driven, inventive. They live in a world-city where the currents of the future, bad or good, flow through the streets. And what came up very clearly on Saturday was the London local elections could be a good laboratory to test new strategies.
Why not attempt a “progressive” alliance, a joint ticket between Labour, Greens, Lib Dems and civil society groups, for the elections for mayor and the London Assembly? Or: what could the equivalent of a Yes campaign, or a Common Weal approach be for London? How could they mobilise communities, amplified by the city’s creative talent and digital literacy, to celebrate its diverse multitudes? They’ve not much left to lose by trying.
But London, like Scotland, is different. I detected no animosity towards the “Scots Surge” in any public or one-to-one discussions, and much admiration for our policy-driven politics of hope. Yet I couldn’t help but shake my head when Cruddas cited Miliband’s One Nation speech at the 2012 Labour Party conference as one of his former leader’s high water marks.
“One Nation”? What nation would that be, then? What winning British “national story” – the Dagenham MP’s key strategy for bringing a Labour victory, as it did in 1945, 1964 and 1997 – could conceivably survive this general election?
I felt more acutely than ever on Saturday that our “civic” (or to use Nicola Sturgeon’s term, “utilitarian”) nationalism – forged by thousands of hands (and millions of hours) of activism, imagining and thinking over the last 40 years – is a great, maybe singular achievement.
It’s like a background hum or note: something that lets us know we’re in a “national collective”, but in an abstract, elective and modest way. That hum enables Scots to get to a policy consensus (which largely traverses the indy-unionist divide) on what a good society might be. Our dialogues presume we all value the ground we stand on.
But this might also be why there are limits to what Scotland can teach my progressive centre-left pals about their next steps. To cut to the chase: many of them are really, really nervous about re-creating that hum, in the form of an English Left civic nationalism.
And many resist the Scottish exemplar forcing them in that direction. The writer John Harris wanted to be able to talk about “England, but not English nationalism – I just can’t go there”. Earlier in the week, I read a piece from Channel 4 News’ Paul Mason which gave a beautiful account of a “England” which spilled over whatever boundaries you could historically or culturally place on it – always already a nation that was open to the world.
I understand the nerves: it took us a few decades to turn Scottish nationalism into Scottish normalism. But how does Labour speak to those Ukip voters, much fretted over at this event, who put Farage & Co second to the People’s Party, in so many northern England seats? How can they improve the tone of that background hum in their heads; change its pitch away from fear and insecurity?
Maybe the London election, and the European Union referendum, are two opportunities to begin a new, left-of-centre electoral story for “non-Scotland”. Something about how to feel secure in a complex, accelerating world. Something less defensive than just pulling up the drawbridge; something that more actively treasures the everyday relations that bind together diverse communities.
I don’t know. I know what works for Scotland. But I sense my comrades are on a long, painful journey to find out what works for them. And though our progressive visions will largely overlap, they have some distinct problems of their own to solve.