English Labour Network at conference: what our speakers said

On Sunday 26 September the English Labour Network partnered with Public First to host a conversation on Labour and England, at Labour Party conference in Brighton.

Speakers discussed England, its governance, its identity and its voters.

We were delighted to be joined by the Shadow Cabinet’s David Lammy MP, Cllr Naushabah Khan (Medway), James Meadway (former advisor to John McDonnell), Cllr Simon Henig (Durham), and John Denham (former Minister and our director). The conversation was chaired by Natascha Engel (former Labour MP and Public First).

Below we provide a brief summary of comments.

David Lammy MP

On the need to celebrate English identity:

“You get a powerful sense of identity in Wales, powerful identity in Scotland, but here in England it seems to be ill at ease. We have got to do more than just feel English when England are playing in the European Cup or the World Cup.”

On the census:

 “Not just I, but my mixed heritage children who have a white English mother, could not define themselves on the census form as ‘English’ and ‘black’ at the same time. That seemed to me to be deeply problematic… Yes, I’m black British but if I was in Scotland, I could say I was black and Scottish. If I was in Wales, I could say I was black and Welsh, but I couldn’t say on the form that I identified as English. That is a problem. It is a problem because it encourages an ethnic nationalism as opposed to a civic nationalism.”

John Denham

The role of identity:

“Identity is one of the most visceral relationships between the political party and the voter because the first question a voter asks is not “what’s your policy?” or your ideology, or your values. It’s “are you somebody who see’s the world the way I do?” and therefore “can I trust you to stand up for people like me?” and if you are English, and Labour only talks about Britain and the British and never talks about England and the English. So you have sent a message before you’ve started.”

“Too often in the Labour Party I’m afraid people talk about the English as ‘they’ and ‘them’, and until we’re seen as a party for whom the English is ‘we’ and ‘us’ we’re going to struggle.”

“The person who say’s ‘I’m British not English’, which is very typical of Labour Party people, need to know that they represent about 10% of the population. Just to understand that other people see the world differently is an important point.”

“Englishness has been changing because England has been changing, Gareth Southgate’s Englishness is much more representative of the Englishness that’s out there around us today than the old EDL’s type of Englishness.”

“What I think we can do if we do this right, is we can tell a story of England’s history which is recognised by everyone living in England, whatever their background. And that’s what we need for the future. And we can also have a progressive patriotism which says that all of those people are going to build the England we need in the future.”

Cllr Naushabah Khan

The need for authenticity and confidence:

 “Nobody believes we are authentic on this issue, because actually we don’t feel comfortable talking about it. We need people to believe us when we talk about England, when we say we understand England, when we talk about identity, and when we say actually what you feel is what we feel.”

“We have a disconnect with what it means to be English and what we understand it to be. We very quickly fall into stereotypes and have a sense of discomfort, yet we have no problems talking about Welsh Labour or Scottish Labour, and those identities are very much seen as positives. So we have a journey there.”

A Labour manifesto for England:

“A manifesto for England is something really important that we need to look at as a party. We need to start rethinking our own relationship with Englishness, and get rid of the toxicity that I think we align to it. We need to redefine what being English is about.”

Cllr Simon Henig

Broad church required:

“We we simply cannot get elected without non-metropolitan England. It is as simple as that.”

“The Conservatives are deliberately playing to that English nationalism in a way that is reckless for the future of the United Kingdom, but it causes us real problems across large parts of England.”

“We have to engage with Brexit England to have any chance of bringing Labour back to power. That’s not going to be easy as we have lost the trust, we have almost lost the right to be heard by a number of those people.”

Learn from Welsh Labour, and treat England seriously:

“The answer centres around treating England seriously, looking at issues such as devolution – giving people a say in how their areas are run, and to re-engage them with politics at a ground level. I think that we’re in a good place to be able to engage with that and move it forward. But it is a huge process and we’re just at the start of that.”

“Wales was the only place where Labour did better in May than at the previous set of elections, and if you look at the literature the ‘Welshness’ of it was unmistakable. It was totally different from the literature that was going out in all other countries. We need to look at how we can apply this to England.”

“I couldn’t understand the Welsh result in May, and then I looked at the literature and it all became clear because it was saying ‘Labour stands up for Wales’, ‘we’re for Wales’, and the public responded to that with the best ever set of results for years and years.”

James Meadway

Empowering people:

“There is a deep cynicism about government, so simply turning up and saying ‘here is big government it will do things for you’ isn’t going to cut with a whole load of people. In particular I don’t think it’s going to cut with the very people we need to do the most to try and win over. The voters who could vote Labour but currently don’t because of a mismatch of identity, values and beliefs.”

“Addressing Englishness isn’t just about saying we’ll swap the Union Jack for a St George Cross. It’s also how do we create a different kind of social democratic politics which starts with the principle of giving power to the people.”

“We have to look like the party for England, which means calling ourselves a party for England, which means institutionalising that. It means having a much looser arrangement between the different parts of the Labour Party, and that we should organise ourselves as a federation of Labour Parties inside the United Kingdom and therefore we are a party for England.”

Reporting by Andrew Achilleos.