Amongst the millions of photos flooding the internet after England’s penalty shoot-out victory, was a selfie of an excited Paul Mason, complete with St George flag face paint. The image was all the more remarkable because this was the same Paul Mason who wrote in the Guardian in 2015 ‘I do not want to be English’ and, in case you were in any doubt, added ‘and any attempt to create an English identity will fail’.
The flip-floppery is amusing, but surely, it’s hardly consequential? 24 million people watched on Tuesday evening, many drawn in by the collective sense of common interest and belonging that a major tournament can build. It’s good to have Paul Mason with us.
It does matter, however, because Paul Mason, is influential. He is a serious writer (even if, like Johnson and Gove in their commentariat days, he also likes to provoke.) He is one of those who has helped turn the left against England and Englishness with a politics that does not just decry national identity: it marginalises the political importance of the millions of people who feel English all the time, not just during the World Cup.
English identity exists, as the recent BBC YouGov survey demonstrated. Over 80% of us feel strongly English, and rather more of us feel ‘more English’ than ‘more British’. Likely many in the media elite, Mason seems unaware that it is he who is in a minority by rejecting English identity. English identity does not need to be created but recognised and accepted. That does not mean English identity does not evolve; it does as the development of an inclusive English identity – something Mason recognises – attests. But it is already there, and it is strong.
English or British, we have little faith in Westminster’s ability to represent us, but it is the English who feel most disempowered, and disenfranchised, and keenest on change to the way England is run. It was the English above all who grasped the chance to ‘take back control’ and who are taking the whole country out of the EU. People like me may regret that choice, but we can’t ignore its potential power for change. This is a bubbling demand to be heard that the left cannot ignore.
Mason takes a different view. Writing in 2016 he argued that Labour’s strategy ‘must be based on the realisation that Labour’s heartland is now in the big cities, among the salariat and among the globally oriented, educated part of the workforce’. That must indeed be part of Labour’s base, but this is an extraordinary writing off of the power and potential of millions of working class voters. In his view, however, ‘it is no disaster for Labour to find its core support among this demographic — because it is the future of the workforce in any successful 21st century capitalism’.
Underlying this is the Marxian view that the only people who really matter are those who are at the cutting of edge of building the new economy; those who are the ‘educated, salaried, cosmopolitan and pro-global modern workforce of big conurbations’. These are regarded as the historically significant part of the labour market.
What is left for those outside the cities, in the constituencies that will decide deciding the next election, is the promise to borrow billions of pounds to plough into those ‘left behind’ communities. We might ignore the electoral difficulty that these voters are probably those most resistant to governments borrowing lots of money on their behalf. But this politics takes away all agency from those people, all sense that they can be equal partners in creating a new society. It reduces them to passive recipients of measures decided by their more progressive and more future friendly betters.
Brexit is objectively a disaster, but it’s now clear that many voted for it despite its potential economic costs. They decided to reject those who said they knew what was best for them.
To be fair, Mason nods in favour of local people shape Labour’s campaigning priorities, but it’s pretty clear he already knows what will be good for them. He explicitly rejects any attempt to reach out to engage their values and identity, to consider changing the world in the way they would like. But unless Labour can put those who have suffered most from globalisation at the heart of building a better world the party will still be met with scepticism. That means seeing them as actors, not as an audience. It means listening to what they want, not just what we think they should want. Brexit showed that they will insist on their right to shape the future, and the left should be responding.
They include a disproportionate number of those who feel most English and are not looking for anyone to create an identity for them. While some of the left sneers, they greet England’s multi-racial inclusive team with cheers.
John Denham is Director of the English Labour Network.