This is the second in our series of interviews with leading Labour figures, conducted by Sam Stopp. Read the first here.
Few people are better qualified to talk about Labour’s relationship with Englishness than Cllr Peter Lamb, the Leader of Crawley Council. Holding both a research background in devolution and the leadership of the quintessentially English borough of Crawley, Lamb has exactly the sort of perspective that Westminster has spent decades ignoring.
I start by asking Lamb why he supports the new English Labour Network (ELN). “I think the Labour Party has to get to grips with the fact that it can’t be tolerant of every ethnic grouping apart from the English”, he says. “A lot of people on the Left have put any concept of British or English nationalism in the bad, right-wing box and not realised that the inclusivity of taking pride in oneself is at the heart our ideals.”
How did we get to this point? I ask. “The Left has ceded this territory and the Right has tried to define what it is to be English”, he tells me.
“Part of the problem”, says Lamb, “is that if you’re well-off or liberal, then you might be in a position to define yourself as things other than English. But if you’re in a community where it’s fairly hard-going and you need something to give yourself a greater sense of belonging, then culture becomes incredibly important to you. The people who are very keen to refute the value of culture are the same people who aren’t going to be in that category of needing it.”
“The ELN has taken off in a way in which previous attempts haven’t. It shows there is more of an appetite and an understanding than there previously was”, he adds.
Identity in Crawley
I’m curious about Lamb’s experiences in Crawley – and whether he’s found that it’s been harder to get the Labour message through in part because of its attitude towards Englishness?
“I think if we had a coherent offer that made people feel like the Labour Party was a patriotic party, and I mean that as patriotic, not nationalistic, we would make leaps and bounds through the electorate in Crawley.”
“A lot of people”, Lamb tells me, “do believe in a sense of community and are genuinely upset about what they’ve lost in the way of affordable housing and all those different things, but they don’t see us as a party for people like them anymore. They think we are focussed on issues which have managed to increase the status of any number of other groups in society.”
An inclusive Englishness
It feels like it’s going to take quite a long time to turn around the impression that some communities have of the Labour Party, particularly working class communities who Lamb notes are more likely to feel English. I ask Lamb how he would begin redressing the disconnect, and whether it is possible to do whilst hanging onto the Labour’s new electoral coalition of students and urbanised middle class.
“It depends on whether we view English national identity as inclusive or exclusive”, explains Lamb. “If it’s about ‘we are better than you’, then the Left has lost. It can’t be about being exclusive. It’s got to be about everyone being allowed to take pride in who they are. Every cultural group has a right to be proud in their own sense of identity. The ability to go out and enjoy multiculturalism hasn’t taken away from my life, it’s added to it. But I don’t see why I should have to let go of some sense of that Englishness at the heart of my family. So – it’s not removing anything.”
Patriotism and social democracy
Lamb clearly sees a link between patriotism and the successes of the Left.
“It’s no surprise that it was coming out of the Second World War that we ended up with a thumping Labour majority. It was soldiers who had been fighting for their country, coming back and expecting their country to do something for them. It’s no surprise that the world’s most successful social democracies are in countries that have a very clear sense of national identity. It’s not an exclusive thing, but something which unifies and gives people a common sense of obligation towards other people.”
“I remember talking to people a couple of days after the 2015 general election, which had seen the Tories successfully brand themselves as the party of England in the face of Scottish nationalism, and saying we needed to get to the point where we were comfortable putting the St. George’s flag on our literature. There was a lot of support for it.”
English devolution has long been a key area of interest for Lamb, who highlights the success of Scottish and Welsh devolution whilst wondering how much longer the public would put up with Scottish and Welsh MPs voting on issues that only concern the English.
But what does he think proper devolution would look like in England and how should we go about achieving that?
“There are a few ways we could go”, explains Lamb. “You could have an English Parliament, but this would be the end of the United Kingdom. In terms of solutions, that might be the most realistic one, bearing in mind the general course of where things seem to be heading.
“I was always an advocate of regional assemblies. They weren’t popular when they were first put forward for that, and one of the reasons was that the country was still trying to get used to the idea of devolution, but now even Tory council leaders talk about having regional assemblies.”
“What we were proposing previously was just a body to hold to account the regional assemblies”, Lamb asserts. “They didn’t really have any significant power behind them. It was a typical central government hedge.”
Lamb asks: “If you take the Police and Crime Commissioners, what do they do? They set a budget and they hold the police to account, but they don’t have real control and people aren’t keen to vote for them. But if you have genuine regional government, and bear in mind that we are the only state in the western world that doesn’t have something like this, we’re not in a position to start tackling some of these problems.”
So, the problem comes from the centre? “Westminster is utterly frantic. It’s trying to run far too much from the centre and it’s not possible to do it. Regional assemblies have the benefit of being able to provide a much more local focus, a much more customised focus, that is much more directly accountable. The Welsh Assembly has been a terrific model. You don’t necessarily need to have legislative powers to govern effectively. But the government has no interest in devolution. It never has.”
I decide to play Devil’s Advocate and question whether, because English regions aren’t as pronounced as the national identities of Wales of Scotland, it makes English regional devolution more difficult.
“Look – I’m a Local Authority leader in the South East of England”, he tells me firmly. “I’ve lived my entire life in this South East of England and we are probably the least coherently designed region in the entire United Kingdom, so I can accept the idea that there isn’t necessarily a strong sense of what it is to be a south-eastern individual living in the South East.”
And yet … “But I can tell you that we do have certain attitudes. We go and meet people from other parts of the country, and I can tell you that people do have different cultural attributes. They do have different sets of challenges that they are trying to face.”
Lamb doesn’t seem the need for a referendum on regional assemblies, and cites Italy and Spain as examples for where they have been imposed and work well. “Italy’s problem isn’t democratic accountability”, says Lamb. “If anything, it has too much democracy. Having a federalist structure has allowed countries like Italy and Spain to survive severe turmoil at the centre because they’ve still get resilient structures capable of delivery on the ground.”
“At the moment, we are going from hung parliament to hung parliament”, reflects Lamb. “Because we are such a unitary, centralised country, it poses genuine questions over our ability to deal with modern challenges. Even if you can’t deal with some of the questions around foreign affairs, you can still deal with healthcare and educational questions (through devolution). We must devolve to the lowest level at which it is reasonable to take a significant decision.”
What strikes me from speaking to Lamb is just how much nuance there is to unpack in the devolution debate, and how Labour, if it is to grasp the nettle, must communicate in clear, simple messaging. To do so we’ll need to honour the words of Labour’s lost leader, John Smith, on his final night. We will need, in short order, “to get all the thinkers together”.