These remarks by David Lammy were made at the English Labour Network’s event in Parliament 3 March 2020. We’ve published all speaker contributions here.
Much has been said about the 2019 election result which I won’t repeat, but before we get onto Englishness, Labour must return to getting these three fundamental aspects of opposition right:
First, credibility and trust. Issues of credibility and trust started before Jeremy Corbyn, I think there were issues for Ed Miliband and were actually issues for Gordon Brown. Second, the policy platform that Labour is presenting and how that is chiming. I won’t repeat just how problematic our indigestible policy offer was at the last election, which is recognised wherever you are on the left/right axis within Labour. Thirdly, party discipline. Again, this proceeds Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Party has been a leaky bucket where members of parliament and their advisors enjoy having a chat with journalists particularly and enjoy airing their dirty linen in public, and that has gone on now for well over a decade.
Until those three fundamental things are gripped seriously by a new leader and a party that actually wants to win power, you can forget the English taking the Labour Party seriously.
Englishness and the Left
On a broader sense, I’ve been fortunate to be able to find the space over five years to write a new book – Tribes. The book really begins because when I arrived in parliament 20 years ago now. I was elected as the MP for Tottenham, which is clearly a very definable, easily understood inner city constituency with a historic black community (and the best football club!), yet I found that whilst I obviously had a degree of familiarity with many of my London MP colleagues, actually I got on very, very well MPs representing places outside London – Slough, Reading, Dartford, and Peterborough, partly because I had spent seven years of my life growing up in Peterborough, in middle England.
In some ways, it’s the experience of growing up in middle England that gives me an ease both with the Labour movement and to some extent with the country. I’m actually quite comfortable not just with being British but with being English. I recall with joy and humour my first pints in the Farmers Arms in Peterborough. At a certain point in my life I had gone to watch ‘the Posh’, which is Peterborough United, not Spurs! I spent some of my life as a lawyer in California, and pined for Ribena, Walker’s crisps, the kind of grey sky and nature of England. What I mean is that Englishness, it seems to me, is quite important.
Why was I driven to think about this book? It was because politically careers come like this and they have different incarnations, but in the most recent incarnation, which really begins with the referendum, and the run up to the referendum, I found increasingly many people, particularly on social media, questioning my Englishness. They would tweet often, “why do you hate England so much?”. “Go back to where you come from”. Somehow – after a period when they didn’t really feel that strongly about it – I represented something that they couldn’t stand and couldn’t possibly be part of the England that they love and they know.
I don’t take that too personally – it’s a sensibility that seems to be quite dominant. So in a sense, I got into this business of exploring this subject that is Englishness, and it’s absolutely the case that part of this lies in the progressive, liberal and left family vacating the territory that is to do with nationhood, to do with patriotism, to do with pride in who you are. Totally leaving the ground.
An economic analysis of the inequalities and the injustices that lie in Britain are not sufficient. Addressing issues of poverty and brutal unfairness because of class are not sufficient, it seems to me, that you still have to have an account of the nation; that’s really important.