John Humphrys: Should Labour Wave the Flag?

February 05, 2021, 4:22 PM UTC

It’s coming up to a year since Sir Keir Starmer took over as Labour leader and, by the most obvious measure, he’s done pretty well. He’s pulled the party up from the pits of its disastrous electoral defeat in 2019 (its worst since 1935) to level-pegging with the Conservatives. But some think they should be doing much better, given the government’s woeful handling of the covid crisis in the early days. The question is: how? A report drawn up by a consultancy advising the party and leaked to The Guardian this week recommends that Labour should align itself with the values of patriotism, praising military veterans and wrapping itself in the Union Flag. But some on the left of the party have reacted with horror. So should Labour wave the flag or not?

Labour’s electoral successes have historically depended on the reliability of three firm foundations which they see as the bedrock of its majorities in the House of Commons. They consisted of:

  • support among urban leftwingers, often intellectual, white-collar and young;
  • blue-collar workers in the old industrial heartlands of Wales, the Midlands and the North;
  • and the seemingly impregnable support for the party in the central belt of Scotland.

This triple coalition was never enough on its own to win Labour power at Westminster. The Labour leaders of the last fifty years who won big majorities, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, needed also to seduce floating voters in the centre to get them into Downing Street. But the triple coalition was nonetheless essential to their success.

To reach Downing Street Sir Keir will, like Wilson and Blair, need to seduce floating voters. But his problem is very much greater than his predecessors’ was because severe cracks have appeared in the previously dependable foundations of Labour’s vote. At the 2015 election the party ‘lost’ Scotland to the SNP. And in 2019 it lost the blue-collar vote in Wales, the Midlands and the North to the Conservatives – the collapse of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats to the onslaught of Boris Johnson. Only the urban white collar/intellectual/young voters stayed loyal.

So Sir Keir’s first task is to rebuild Labour’s foundations. In Scotland there is as yet no sign of progress. The SNP, especially under its current leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has transformed the party from one that was, in its origins, on the nationalist right of politics, into a party on the left – still nationalist, of course, but capable of appealing to the left-wing outlook of those who traditionally voted Labour. And how! At the 2019 election Labour was left with just one MP in Scotland when, pre-2015, it could

depend on over fifty. Sir Keir has persuaded the party’s leader in Scotland, Richard Leonard, to resign but there is still a very long way to go in rebuilding Labour’s vote in Scotland and no obvious sign that it can be done before the next election, if ever.

Labour’s loss of the Red Wall seats in England and Wales in 2019 was just as much, if not more, of a shock than the loss of Scotland four years earlier. Seats that had been ‘true Labour’ for decades and which had expressed visceral hatred for the Conservatives from the Thatcher era onwards, fell in scores to the appeal of Boris Johnson. The reasons for this abrupt abandonment of Labour were clear enough. Voters in those seats disliked Jeremy Corbyn, whom they regarded as far too left-wing and far too much under the influence of the urban intellectual ‘woke’ wing of the party. He was, after all, from Islington! And many of them had voted for Brexit (which they did not do in Islington) at least in part on nationalist grounds. So Boris Johnson, the leader of the Brexit campaign who had posed for years as the nationalist champion of Britain fighting the bureaucrats of Brussels, was their man.

This, then, is the predicament Sir Keir finds himself in. And the fact that he’s already brought Labour’s share of the vote roughly to even stevens with the Tories offers him little comfort. That’s because much of Labour’s gain over the last year has come from former LibDem and Green voters, rather than from the Tories. That means Labour could expect to win even more thumping majorities in urban seats it already holds without winning many extra seats.

It’s against this background that this week’s leaked report needs to be read. Back in the autumn the party employed the consultancy firm Republic to conduct intensive focus groups and come up with strategic recommendations. The one that has caught attention is its advice that ‘the use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc give voters a sense of authentic values alignment’. The way this is couched may seem, perhaps, a touch cynical but it nonetheless captures a truth the report’s authors clearly feel Labour would be foolish to ignore: that if the party wants to retake the Red Wall seats (now called ‘foundation seats’) it lost in 2019, it must be seen to be ‘aligned’ with the values of voters in those seats. And those values, evident in their support of Brexit and their rejection of Jeremy Corbyn, include those that the report lists and which can be symbolised in the idea of waving the Union Flag.

Some in the party have welcomed what they see as this electoral realism. Ben Bradshaw, the Blairite MP (and passionate Remainer during the referendum) said: ‘It is excellent news that the Labour party is finally listening to the voters after ten years of not doing so.’ But those on the left of the party take a very different view.

Clive Lewis MP, a member of Mr Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, condemned what he called ‘a faux flag-waving brand that’s a cheapened version of patriotism’ and said it was more like ‘Fatherland-ism’, adding that this ‘has a side that touches on the darker aspects of our humanity’. Others suggest that following the advice would see

the party succumbing to what they regard as the worst side of nationalism they associate with Nigel Farage and even with the ‘Make America Great Again’ nationalists who supported Donald Trump and stormed the Capitol in his and its name.

But to its opponents in the party, the left shouting ‘Fascist!’ at any mention of the Union Flag exactly expresses the Party’s problem in the old Red Wall seats: it confuses patriotism with the worst excesses of nationalism. Gordon Brown, the former leader, has always insisted on the distinction. To be patriotic is to want the best for, and to do the best for, one’s country; to be nationalistic, at least in its most extreme form, is to say ‘my country, right or wrong’ and to adopt an aggressive attitude to other nations. Mr Lewis would accept the distinction – he’s not against patriotism per se (he did, after all, fight for his country in Afghanistan) – but he thinks for Labour to wrap itself in the flag risks feeding the worst of nationalism.

Others argue at quite another level simply that it would be tactically stupid for Labour to do so. Why, they say, should Sir Keir enter a competition with Boris Johnson to see who can wave the flag most? The Prime Minister has so taken to surrounding himself with Union Flags that cartoonists have started to show him disappearing behind them. Up in the Red Wall seats Mr Johnson would win any such contest hands down.

Mr Lewis asks why any party strategist should even consider opting for a flag-waving approach. His answer is: ‘Perhaps the glaring lack of any kind of political project, as some expressed in the party’s focus groups, is one reason’. Sir Keir’s supporters (who, by the way, insist that the recommendations of the leaked report have not as yet been adopted) would argue that this is an unfair criticism: in the year when politics has been dominated by Covid and securing a post-Brexit trade deal they say it would have been mad for the party leadership to try to launch a great new project because no one would have been listening.

But that leaves the question open When Labour eventually does pick its time to articulate the political project about which Mr Lewis says it is currently silent what should its message to the electorate be? Should it seek to align itself with the values of Red Wall voters, including flying the flag and identifying with military veterans, or turn its back on that notion of patriotism?

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