Sunday, 10 June 2012

It’s not just England that needs to rediscover its identity Ed.

Labour leader Ed Milliband dipped his toe into the debate on Scottish independence this week, saying that voters north of the boarder shouldn’t have to choose between being British and being Scottish.

Speaking in a debate held at the Royal Festival Hall this week he said that Scottish separatism was based on a view that ‘insists that the identification with one of our nations is diminished by the identity of the country as a whole. After all they (the SNP) want to force people to choose to be Scottish or British. I say you can do both.’

He also said that the English should be more bold in asserting their identity and that for too long we have ‘been too nervous to talk about English pride, English character,’ because many people on the left saw it as being ‘connected to the kind of nationalism that left us ill at ease.’

There was, he said a different and more progressive form of Englishness that Labour should be celebrating, one that believes in ‘the dignity of the people, in the necessity of conserving the things we value and in the possibilities of progress.’ A progress he asserted that was only possible if the UK stays together.

I’m not sure that Alec Salmond and the SNP would agree, or that Mr Milliband is correct in thinking so for that matter. The cultural and economic ties that bind Scotland to the other three countries making up the UK will in all probability be loosened far less than some commentators would like us to believe were the Scots to choose political self determination.

As, I hope, a committed supporter of democracy all Ed Milliband really needs to do is support the right of the Scottish people to make the choice between independence and remaining in the union. Anything else leaves him open to the suspicion that he is endorsing the union solely because it means he gets to hang onto a lot of reliable (for now) Labour votes from Scots constituencies.

It is interesting though to hear the need for the English to rediscover a sense of their unique identity espoused by a man who leads an organisation with identity issues of its own.

Just who does the Labour Party represent? I mean now, in 2012, not in some sepia tones version of the past. It’s a harder question to answer than you might think.

The Tories can answer that question quite easily; they represent the people they have always represented, the people who are rich and plan to stay rich. If voters outside that charmed circle, the aspirational middle classes or ‘white van man’ choose to support the party that is seen as the icing on the political cake. The party feels no need to make more than token gestures towards recognising their concerns and often soaks both groups thanks to its economic policies.

The Labour Party on the other hand wouldn’t exist at all if it wasn’t for the close relationship it has with its supporters. Unfortunately in recent years the party has managed that relationship with breathtaking incompetence. During the New Labour years they were happy to take money from the unions and ordinary members, but tended to treat them with thinly veiled contempt like embarrassing relatives who were best pushed to the edges of the family photograph or better still out of shot altogether.

Now they are in opposition Labour needs its grassroots members and the wider core vote of which they are representative more than it has for two decades. In order to reconnect with their concerns the party leadership will have to talk about a subject that brings them out in hives but is integral to the English character; class.

Former Labour minister Alan Milburn reported this week that social mobility hasn’t just stalled; it’s been thrown into reverse. Part of the task facing Ed Milliband if he is to regain the trust of the electorate is to find a way of making sure that bright kids from poor backgrounds can make the most of themselves without compromising educational rigour.

Equally importantly he must make sure that the kids who aren’t university bound don’t grow up with a cloud of inferiority hanging over their heads. Training for a trade has to be put on an equal footing with being educated to follow a profession, something a largely Oxbridge educated cabinet has signally failed to grasp.

Beyond that Labour has to start talking about how they will give individuals and communities a genuine say in how decisions that will have an impact on their lives are made. If he really wants to forge a new and inclusive English identity then it can only be built from the ground upwards and based on priorities decided by people living at the economic sharp end not well meaning but often remote members of the political establishment.

Traditionally Labour were the party of the workers who made the wheels of industry turn, most of those wheels may have been sold off for scrap, but the people who greased them with their labour are still there and they still need a voice. If it is serious about getting back into office and bringing about real change Labour must find a way of giving them one.

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