Just over a year ago some Labour activists wouldn’t deliver Stoke by-election leaflets that carried St George cross branding. Though most members wouldn’t go that far, many would admit to being uncomfortable with any symbols of English identity. So, the video of Labour MPs, led by Shadow Sports Minister Rosena Allin-Khan, waving the England flag and singing ‘football’s coming home’ was all the more remarkable.
Politicians who align themselves to sporting success usually get and deserve a cynical raspberry. But this time it was different. Labour was reflecting a much wider public mood. Gareth Southgate’s hope that his youthful and diverse team reflected a modern English identity was not an empty dream. It wasn’t just that millions of fans wholeheartedly supported a multi-racial team; those fans included unprecedented numbers of black and Asian fans. Several ethnic minority/black and Asian commentators, including David Olusoga and Sunny Hundal wrote movingly of embracing an English identity that once appeared barred to them (or about how their love of English football had been forced to endure the worst connotations of Englishness). In London, the least ‘English’ part of England, the percentage of those feeling ‘strongly’ English rose from 63% to 73%.
Labour’s positive response did not come out of the blue. Bit by bit, the argument for taking England seriously had been gaining ground, whether in our promise of new saints’ day bank holidays, a minister for England, Diane Abbott tweeting (in quite personal terms) on St George’s Day, Jon Trickett’s recent speech or the growth of the English Labour Network.
But, of course, we’ve had false dawns before. 1996; when football was first ‘coming home’ and the nation was festooned in red and white. The inclusion of the Windrush generation in Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony did not prevent their appalling treatment (although it may have fed the spontaneous public outrage at what had happened). And, across the channel, the 1998 World Cup triumph of France’s diverse team did not halt the rise of the Front National.
So, as the person who has probably banged on most about English identity, I’d like to take stock of what has and has not happened, and the opportunities and challenges ahead.
The big change is undoubtedly the embrace of at least one symbol of Englishness – the flag and team intertwined – amongst the people who have been most worried about its connotations. In truth, those reservations have often been out of touch with the reality of English identity. Most English people had long abandoned ethnic and racist ideas of Englishness, rejecting the idea that you have to be white to be English. Nonetheless, it’s impossible to dismiss the fears of those minorities who have experienced the unpleasant other face of England, nor under-estimate the importance of their changed perceptions and those of cosmopolitan activists who eschew all national identity.
At the very least, those worries about carrying English branding on our leaflets, or talking about England, should now have fallen away. Neither English identity nor England belong to the small minority who would like to pervert it for racist, xenophobic or populist reasons. Every time Labour talks of England, uses English symbols, or talks about the people of England, we will be speaking to and strengthening the majority who experience English as a positive identity.
On the other hand, not everything has changed. Feelings of English identity will still be strongest amongst those who they have lost out from economic and social change over the past 30 years, and who feel that no one – including Labour – has spoken for them. Worries about immigration will not have gone away (though there is evidence that we have passed a peak of fear and are beginning to see more who see it positively). Support for Leave is still higher amongst English identifiers than British. Just as the left was wrong to reject Englishness, we cannot expect now everyone who feels English to support us. But we can make voting Labour and feeling English feel a normal and radical combination.
English Labour Network events
We shouldn’t think we can just stick a St George cross on our leaflets to see sceptical voters come running. But recognising English identity – their identity – as one we all share just makes it easier to open up discussion, to listen, to ask people how we can build an England and a Britain that overcomes our divisions and builds a society in the common good. To offer practical support to activists, the English Labour Network will be organising a series of regional conferences ‘Winning England’ through the autumn and into the New Year, including dates in Leeds, Hull, Stoke, and the West Midlands.
Around 30 million people shared the highs and lows of the World Cup. The emotions will fade, but that collective experience means that nothing will ever be quite the same again. Clearly, building socialism is not the same as a World Cup campaign – far more meetings for a start – but building a better society does depend on a shared vision of the nation we, together, want to create. For people living in England, that nation is England as much as it is Britain.
John Denham is Director of the English Labour Network, and is a former Labour Cabinet Minister