John McTernan: There is a part of Labour that is forever England

It IS a danger for any political party that it gets locked in the past, trapped in a contour of history. Peter Mandelson's memoir recounts in painstaking detail the struggle to get senior Labour figures to compromise with the reality of contemporary Britain. That battle is about to start again, with the refinement that it is time for Labour to understand England.

The tide that swept Labour out of government, reducing it to 28 per cent of the popular vote (the third worst general election result since 1918) left three strongholds - Scotland, London and Liverpool. The first of these has had a distinctive political dynamic for over 40 years - there are reasons for Labour's revival in Scotland but they have no direct read across to England. And in different ways the other two cities are themselves probably the least representative parts of England - Merseyside is still rootedly working-class, while London is a world city with a social, ethnic and economic diversity unmatched by any other European capital. Neither offer any basis or model for Labour's revival.

The England Labour has to regain is suburban and rural - it is not the urban England in which Labour MPs and activists feel at home. This is remarkably similar to the challenge Labour faced in Scotland after 2007, driven back into a western heartland but needing to fashion a new appeal to modern Scotland. The danger is to retreat to only speaking to and for the safe seats.

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The lesson for Labour's next leader is that this is above all an intellectual exercise. It starts with enquiry and evidence, with seminars and exploration. Former Labour Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy reclaimed Scottishness from Nationalism with the phrase "all nationalists are patriots, but not all patriots are nationalists" deftly acknowledging the power of patriotism but separating it from any specific political formation. Labour now needs to find a similar way to situate itself as an English party able to articulate an inclusive sense of Englishness.

What are the key steps? First to retell the story of the making of modern England with Labour - and the broader labour movement - front and centre. This is partly a story of the ways in which the tolerant and secular modern society was created by Labour. Every significant piece of equalities legislation was brought in by Labour. Each - one by one - accepted, often grudgingly, by the Tories, but never initiated by them. The process of aligning laws with the lived reality of society is a crucial and humanising one - and a central role for government. This is not about boasting, it's about reflecting back to voters that a country that is comfortable with itself comes about by choice not by chance. And, as importantly, it is about linking Labour actions on equality to deep English traditions of individualism - for the liberation of the individual is what collective action has been about. Labour is not a socialist party. It was founded by the hard-working - a Labour Party not a dole party.

Second, there has to be a humility that places the Labour Party amongst a plurality of voices. The trade unions, obviously, whose role - and right - to speak for working people remains of huge importance to Labour. But as important as their industrial role is the social role they played historically. The labour movement has its roots in a very strong English tradition that is suspicious of the state, that created its own institutions - friendly societies, co-ops, building societies.

A confident Labour would have welcomed David Cameron's Big Society while acidly pointing out he was more than 160 years late in adopting the ideas of the Rochdale Pioneers, the founders of the Co-operative movement. And it would concede the mistakes it made in the post-war period where, after the 1945 landslide victory, Labour all too rapidly concluded the state was not the problem for working people but was, in most circumstances, the solution. But, in addition, this needs to go wider to embrace the dissenting strand of English thought.

Harold Wilson said Labour owed more to Methodism than to Marxism, but it draws from all the non-conformist traditions. As well as the many liberal and progressive (and sometimes not so progressive) strands of 19th and early 20th century English thought. This is not to claim - or annexe - them, but to locate Labour in that deeper national context.

Third, Labour has to reclaim place and landscape. England is, to many, defined by its physical beauty - and that is a beauty preserved by progressive action. Octavia Hill, prime force behind the National Trust, also pioneered social housing. Benny Rothman who led the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Thirties paved the way for Labour governments to establish National Parks, and most recently the "right to roam". That concern for environment in its deepest social sense is expressed too in council housing (first funded by Labour in the Twenties) and in the New Towns (our most successful social engineering). These build on a tradition of "muscular" social democracy - socialist cycling clubs, gyms and boxing clubs in working-class communities, even the origins of many of England's most famous football clubs as works teams (Manchester United coming from a railway workers' side, and Arsenal from munitions plants).

Plurality, rurality, individuality - English traits and values that stand at the heart of the Labour story. Or should do if it is told right. Much cant is spoken about political parties reconnecting with voters, this is about Labour rediscovering its own history and its role in the national story. The risk is simply stated - if you aren't telling your story, other people are telling stories about you. A lot of English votes are in play. David Cameron failed to get a majority because a significant number of voters were alienated from both main parties. There is an Englishness but it's not nationalism. It's time for David and Ed to speak for England. They won't get it right first time, but they will never get it right without trying.

• John McTernan is a former special adviser to MP Jim Murphy.