Blue Labour’s Dilemma is the SNP’s Opportunity

John Curran 

Imagine © Scottish Labour

The failure to end the cycle of “boom and bust” brought Labour electoral defeat and Ed Milliband the leadership crown. The subsequent leadership battle (or soap opera which focussed on the two Milliband brothers) led to a re-examination of policy but no in-depth review instead a re-branding occurred as Blue Labour was born, an idea associated with Jon Cruddas, James Purnell and Maurice Glasman.

But what is Blue Labour? Richard Seymour writing in the Guardian 9 June describes it as a mechanism to reclaim themes excluded from the lexicon of the left. Seymour places it within the historical context of the `popular front’ of the 1930s when a clarion call was made by Stafford Crisps for left unification in opposition to appeasement.

The contemporary left must reframe the right wing artefacts of the past and by  doing so develop what Billy Bragg called the `Progressive Patriot`. English patriotism is no longer the refuge of the scoundrel it is the Labour Party`s big idea. As Milliband stated in his June speech:

”Something was holding us back from celebrating England too. We have been too nervous to talk of English pride and English character. For some it was connected to the kind of nationalism that left us ill at ease. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Union flag was reclaimed from the National Front”. 

This endorsement is ambiguous for good reason. Nationalism in England is de facto a right wing preserve symbolised by the emergence of the English Defence League a pernicious group with a growing support base. Its existence illustrates the difficulties in reconciling progressive politics with English nationalist themes.

Mr Milliband illustrated UK diversity by speaking movingly about his Jewish ethnicity and family:

”They did not have to hide their past. They did not have to pretend they were someone else.  Jewish but not religious”.

But, Britain does not have a perfect record regarding Anti-Semitism. After all Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Herbert Spencer and Oswald Mosley were all British. It was representatives of the working class left such as Joe Jacobs who made Britain safe for Jewish refugees when they took to the streets in 1936 in the battle of Cable Street. 

The experience of many ethnic groups newly arrived in the UK has not always been a pleasant one, to pretend otherwise is to misrepresent the situation, Labours defeat in Bradford indicates the electoral dangers of such a shallow analysis.

The speech at the Royal Festival Hall followed the weekends Jubilee celebration and the grandiose location may have encouraged Mr Milliband to heap praise on her majesty. The commitment to monarchy is an area Labour and the SNP agree upon, those favouring independence in the Scottish referendum are not voting for a republic but will remain like those south of the border, subjects of the Queen and not citizens. Mr Salmond must not to be confused with John MacLean he is no Scottish Marxist or Republican.

As the Labour leader said regarding the Jubilee:

”It was a fantastic celebration. I thought it spoke to so many qualities of our country: Our sense of community. Our gentle sense of patriotism. Our stoicism and sense of humour in the face of terrible weather. And the Union flag flying everywhere”.

The Labour leader embraced English patriotic themes with ease while celebrating diversity, noble sentiment however failed to conceal a reactionary impulse beating at the heart of the speech. As he squeezed his thesis into a framework of English nationalism a hypothesis unlikely to gain majority favour in Scotland.

England is now to be put first a sentiment that will irritate many in Scotland. England was not first when the Poll Tax was conceived. And this combined with the loss of Scottish industry contributed to SNP support and anger not mollified by Labours devolution package.

Alex Salmond has managed to identify nationalism in Scotland with progressive social democratic elements a broad church, a refuge for progressive Scots. The SNP has lost the 1970s tag of `tartan tories’ the English nationalism of Mrs Thatcher helped the SNP in this transformation. Mr Milliband must not resurrect English nationalist themes which are viewed in malevolent terms in Scotland and playing directly into the SNPs hand.

The SNP parliamentary majority enables an adroit Alex Salmond to proclaim a mandate proposing a referendum granting voters the option of leaving the union. It is this issue that the Labour leader failed to challenge, if they vote for independence it will damage the left irretrievably while reducing Scotland to a vassal state. This is because the SNP is committed to staying within a UK fiscal/sterling union after independence is established. But how legitimate will this independence be when monetary policy is shaped in London? With Scottish political representation in London removed? This is not an attractive option as the Greeks are discovering dealing with interest rates externally set.

The Irish example closer to home provides an even bleaker prognosis as the nationalist fervour of the 1916 Proclamation has been replaced by a notion of national self determination that places sovereignty in the hands of IMF technocrats reducing nationalism to a sham. Control over national finance as James Connolly realised is a vital feature of genuine independence.

Prior to 1997 Labour gave serious consideration to constitutional issues supporting many of the proposals forwarded by Charter 88. Ed Milliband must look seriously at the constitutional settlement and shape a coherent narrative as Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones recently did thus earning praise from last weekend`s Guardian editorial. Otherwise Mr Milliband risks the union splitting sending the Labour Party into political oblivion.

Given this set of circumstances it seems illogical that the Labour leader could make a speech designed to ingratiate his party with the South East of England while provoking voters in Scotland to distance themselves from the union:

”We should embrace a positive, outward looking version of English identity. Finally, we should also proudly talk the language of patriotism. It is part of celebrating what binds us together and what we project outwards to the world”.

Why he adopted this approach is a mystery though the speech was shaped around the precepts of the Blue Labour agenda, ostensibly designed to persuade Scottish voters to reject the SNP call of secession from the Union but having the opposite effect.  Scotland he argued must remain in the Union thus maintaining dual identity as Scottish and British. The Labour leader announced that the UK was a union of “multiple allegiances” but if Scottish voters decided to vote yes in favour of independence then they could no longer be identified as British.

Ed Milliband is at risk of sounding like a winsome John Major with his George Orwell reference:

“Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different”…How can one make pattern out of this.

But whimsy is no substitute for policy. The Labour leader has attempted to shape his discourse around what it means to be British emphasising common features. He endeavours to do this using Team GB but the corporatism of the Olympics surely cannot be a serious sign-post of British identity.

He needs to try harder his Team GB analysis will not win him electoral gold but it gets him to the starting line. Perhaps Alastair Darling who is co-ordinating the no campaign will inject some substantive thinking into the no campaign?

In summary the Labour leader’s speech lacked a social class analysis (references to bunting but no comment on the English unemployed working for dole to facilitate the weekend celebrations) by wrapping various flags around himself we see the inclination of the spin doctor and the evidence that triangulation is alive and kicking in the Blue Labour Party of 2012 we need more substance and less spin Ed.

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