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Labour and identity

Image credit: lockerdome.com
Image credit: lockerdome.com
Image credit: lockerdome.com

What does it mean to be British in 2015, and what are our fundamental national values? Labour does not seem to know.

One of the key reasons we were hammered in the 2015 General Election was the perception that Labour had no answers to two key issues for the British public: immigration and the European Union, and the broader concerns these tie into. On a fundamental level our party does not understand people’s concerns in the first place, and if we do not understand the concerns then how can we possibly hope to offer powerful solutions in line with Labour values? We were so ill-prepared to deal with these issues that we refused to even offer people a choice when it came to the EU, and our approach to immigration was vague and conflicted.

The core problem is that Labour is entirely incapable of talking about these issues in anything other than economic terms. These are terms that are comfortable for Labour, because they do not require us to ask ourselves the relevant, potentially difficult, questions. By reducing issues of immigration and the EU to economic concerns, we can simply consult the statistics and, finding them in agreement with our established views, claim to have reached the true answer. But this is to ignore the most important dimensions of these questions: the social, cultural, and political; and the ramifications of the policies that we pursue in these areas are wide-reaching.

These are not just economic questions, they are far more than that: they are questions of identity, of culture, and of politics more broadly. The impact of immigration cannot be considered purely in economic terms as this is to consider only one facet while ignoring the rest. Immigration is not a purely economic process. People are not just numbers, they are individuals with their own pasts, cultures, beliefs and goals in life, and these must be weighed as well. The EU is not merely an economic institution but a political one that confronts us with questions of to whom our government should ultimately be answerable, the nature of sovereignty, the limits of localism and democracy, and other far-reaching questions.

What does it mean to be ‘British’ or ‘English’ or ‘Scottish’? What are our cultural, historical, and political identities? What is the role of the nation state in the 21st century? What are British values, and to what extent does our government have a right or responsibility to promote them? To what degree should we tolerate different cultures when they come into conflict with some of our most fundamental beliefs and values? Is economic globalisation a force for good? How can we create a society of social solidarity with an increasingly fractured and isolated society? How can our politics focus on the common good when we have so many conflicting interests and lives? Of course I have my own views on many of these issues, and I intend to argue for them in other pieces, but the first thing is to acknowledge these as vital questions that we must consider the answers to.

I am not convinced the public care one jot about the economic impact of immigration or of our membership of the EU, and I do not mean this as a criticism. In a strange way, they’re a number of steps ahead of us in that they’re concerned with the bigger picture. While we’re busy reassuring them that the EU is good for jobs, they’re busy asking themselves whether it is of fundamental importance that our country governs itself. Our responses are, in a sense, utilitarian, while the public are concerned with more fundamental issues. We tell the public that we are proud to be welcoming and tolerant, but the public are already confronting the question of how tolerant we can or should be. We say that we’re proud of our British values, but are unable to articulate what those values even are.

For far too long Labour have offered unconvincing answers. When asked what our values are the answer is usually based on bland universalist values like “compassion” and “justice”, or answers that must surely be a joke like “fair play.” This kind of bland metropolitanism is unconvincing to the public as a whole, and I am not convinced the politicians saying these things really believe them either. There’s no sense that they understand the value and importance of community and solidarity, based around a common life with shared values and traditions. This is fatal for party that claims to champion community and solidarity as it is easy to claim that what we want is for “Everyone to care for everyone else” (As Corbyn puts it), but social solidarity is built on these foundations that Labour seem to care so little about.

These are huge questions that demand convincing responses, and millions of people across Europe and the rest of our increasingly globalised world are beginning to confront them. The decline of social democratic parties in Europe is largely a result of their failure to confront these issues. Labour have barely begun this process, though some groups like Labour for Common Good and Blue Labour, and individuals like Jon Cruddas and Tristram Hunt, are doing their best to begin this process. But make no mistake, Labour must offer convincing answers when we go into the next election, otherwise Labour will be relegated to the past as parties with more convincing arguments gain public support.

When the nation asks “Who are we and what are we for?” Labour must offer a convincing answer.