These remarks by Sam Tarry were made at the English Labour Network’s event in Parliament 3 March 2020. We’re publishing all contributions to mark St George’s Day 2020.
My starting point, regarding the politics of Labour and England, is that I grew up in Ilford for 25 years of my life and it is a seat which, at the next census, could be as much 70-75% ethnic minority. It is a 25,000 majority seat that is hugely diverse, aspirational working class, with people who are from three or four generations of migrant history who like any Essex person do well for themselves, go and buy a really nice car and put it on the driveway.
Yet Dagenham and Rainham – right next door where my good friend Jon Cruddas is the MP and hangs on by under 250-300 votes – is a constituency where even people from migrant heritages voted heavily for Brexit because of those issues of feeling distant from power, a lack of agency and that issue that I don’t think has been quite unpicked, this idea of sovereignty. People didn’t feel they had sovereignty, and felt Labour was not respecting sovereignty at the last election by calling for a second referendum.
Anthony Barnett has written quite a lot about Brexit being a revolt of the English and I think that there is something in that. For many years I’ve gained experience campaigning not just in Essex but across the country in places like Stoke-on-Trent and Burnley and Oldham, which all voted heavily for Brexit, and also have had problems with the far right. But it’s not just about winning the red wall seats that we lost, because we need to win back the likes of Basildon and Thurrock, the Medway towns that haven’t had genuine Labour representation for a very long time.
In these places it was Brexit that may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. We can argue about Jeremy, his popularity and all of those things, and I know exactly what people were saying to me on the doorstep. We of course need to talk about the presentation of our economic agenda and our policies; I found it often easy to sell an individual policy, but I think as many people found, selling the package left people feeling a little bit incredulous at our ability to be able to deliver it. But at the same time I think we need to also think about not just the context of England but the context of what’s been going on across stretch whole of Europe.
One of the reasons I personally was so excited about potentially a rebirth of the Labour Party is because I felt that after 2015, like most social democratic parties in Europe, we were headed towards a pacification of the Labour Party. Most of our European counterparts had been falling backwards for a long time and we were the only party in Europe that had suddenly bucked the trend, not only increasing its membership to astronomic levels, but the gains we made at that 2017 election.
What’s now happened in 2019 isn’t just something we can lay at the door of this particular Labour Party leadership, but actually something that all of us, from whatever tradition in the Labour Party we are from have to be honest about – that these trends are far more deep-set, that the malaise and the people that have been moving away has happened over a much longer period of time.
So, what should Labour be doing?
The first idea is one that my good friend Billy Bragg has talked about a lot, and I have as well, which isn’t popular on the left, and that is this idea of progressive patriotism. They call it civic nationalism in Scotland. Regarding our last manifesto, lots of people in Ilford came to me that they wished Labour had the guts to actually talk about an education policy through which we could decolonise our history. In Ilford, that won us votes, no doubt about it. Basildon, maybe people wouldn’t care as much about it, but the reason I think it’s important is because if we are to build an idea of what a new English nation can be that isn’t exclusionary based on people’s skin colour, then we need to be thinking about all of these different aspects.
For people that do have heritages stretching every corner of the former British empire, the idea that we as a party recognise that their lives and their struggles, even in this country, are still impacted by that legacy of colonialism, is really powerful. Young people coming to me and saying that we could use our aid budget to try to right the wrongs our country has done over a long period of time, then that is something very powerful they’re interested in listening to.
But we should also talk about progressive English traditions. For example, the Tolpuddle martyrs, the Levellers, the Chartists, the Putney Debates. All of those tell a powerful story of working class solidarity that isn’t taught to generations of young people.
I used to run programmes to try and get people out of the far right in Dagenham, and one of the things we’d done was to talk about contemporary modern history. For example, in that particular constituency, I was explaining the power of the organised women that obviously ended up under Barbara Castle changing the law by going on strike at the Dagenham Ford plant. Because, actually, if you give people a sense of where they’ve come from and the history on which they stand upon, I believe it’s much easier then to actually commonalities between such different histories. As a party we need to have some form of education policy that speaks to people who are from those metropolitan London areas but can also go into those Medway towns, or go into parts of Cornwall and elsewhere, and tell people that we actually understand your traditions and your history as well.
A progressive Englishness, rather than Britishness
I think the idea of Britishness is pretty much dead, because the history of Britain as a colonial master has so many negative overlays. Also, the election results pose real danger for the union, and for Labour. An SNP MP told me they got exactly what they wanted at the last election; a Tory government with a massive majority, with Labour obviously smashed and the SNP as a progressive beacon wanting to go back into the European Union, so allowing them to forge Scotland a modern Scandinavian-style social democracy.
The question for me is whether we can build a progressive, inclusive sense of English patriotism that whether you’re black, white or Asian, whichever community you’re from, you actually feel you have ownership of. A new sense of Englishness gives us an opportunity to not necessarily wipe the slate clean, but to say “let’s forge something new, something that brings people together”.
As a little kid, watching cricket, watching Nasser Hussain playing cricket in Valentine’s Park in Ilford, I realised it is definitely possible to be a sportsperson from an ethnic minority community and to be known worldwide as an Englishman. I think although it’s only sport, there’s something in that. If we look for those things that bring people together, that create solidarity, that create a community, that can be a quite powerful way forward for both our country and for Labour.
Radical constitutional reform
The other thing I’d like to see is really radical constitutional reform. I think that not only do we need to fully elect the House of Lords, we properly need to have English representation – not just from counties but from cities and towns across this country – represented in a new House of Lords, or maybe a senate of the nations, elected properly under some form of single transferable votes or PR system. I genuinely think the lack of agency and inability to hold politicians to account drove much of the anger behind Brexit, but also at this last election.
I would also give far more powers to cities and to local authorities, which for the most part are just trying their best to avoid managing decline. Give them real powers, and give citizens real powers to hold those elected to account.
We clearly also need a written constitution to safeguard our rights, but we need this to be written by the people of England. It should be written through citizen’s conventions that take people out across the country and go to those towns that have not just been forgotten but are boiling with anger. Indeed, if the Tories fail to deliver for these former ‘Red Wall’ seats, I think the direction those voters might be willing to go in could be even darker (if Labour doesn’t respond positively).
Practical things the party can do in Opposition
Just a couple of practical things to get the ball rolling on what we might do from Opposition. First, despite being known as quite ‘horizontalist’, ‘green left’ and ‘radical’, The World Transformed did an interesting thing in 2017. They actually took a roadshow out to seats where Labour were in power, but were at risk sue to Brexit. Although they weren’t able to necessarily deliver much change on the ground, the idea of actually going out to those communities, taking people from parts of the country who never really listen to those communities, and hearing directly from them about the kind of issues they were facing was very powerful. We should do more of this as a movement.
Secondly, we need to be smarter in how we use our resources as a party. I’ve been really inspired by Lewes Labour Party. It struggles to even win councillors, yet every year they organise at least two huge events for the whole of the rest of the south-eastern region. I spoke at it twice and they’ve had 200-300 people there, training people, getting exciting speakers, actually making the Labour movement feel part of something broader rather than just being isolated and fighting uphill battles in a sea of Tory blue.
Another example is my old union TSSA looking to refurbish an old working man’s club in Doncaster to actually turn it into a hub of proper community activism, so that it’s not just an MP’s surgery where people come to be serviced and say ‘right here’s our problem, what can you do about it,’ but so that it gives people the tools to actually be able to help themselves. This has a sense of solidarity at its heart, and it’s exciting that this hub might not just be there for the old generation but for a new generation of people.