Long before a voter considers party policies, let alone ideology, they ask more visceral questions: “do these politicians understand me? And will they stand up for people like me on things I really care about?” It’s the most fundamental relationship in politics and one that continually frustrates the Left. “When it is so obvious to us that we are on the side of the people,” the activist asks, “how can THEY possibly vote for over-privileged, shallow and incompetent old Etonians?”
The harsh answer is that skilled politicians of the Right care about pressing buttons that matter, while the Left makes a show of disdaining them. That’s why the horrified reaction of many left-wing activists to the idea of a patriotic Labour serves only to confirm to many voters that the party neither understands nor wants to stand for them.
Most people in Britain, including Britain’s ethnic minorities, see themselves as patriotic and are instinctively suspicious of those who are not. They have few problems with flags, a monarchy seen as being above politics, or a military composed primarily of working-class recruits. This is emphatically not just an issue for the ‘Red Wall’ but for the southern English conservatives whom Labour must woo on the new electoral boundaries. So far as it goes, party leader Keir Starmer’s insistence on love of the nation he wants to lead is essential and his record of public service gives an underlying authenticity to his message.
For all that, the rewards of patriotism will be thin unless Labour understands where its new focus must now take it. While you cannot get elected as an unpatriotic party, there are not many votes in patriotism itself. It is a precondition for electoral support, but few voters are actually looking for patriotism on the ballot paper. What matters now is how Labour tells the story of the nation and the people it wants to serve. Done well, Labour can redefine who really does stand for the national interest and turn the patriotic heat on the Right.
As class-based allegiances continue to break down, every Left party in Europe is facing the challenge of building a new electoral coalition. Our experiences are fragmented by geography, education, income, wealth, employment and race, often giving us quite different world views. Only a compelling story of the nation and its future has the chance of making millions of people who otherwise live quite different lives and hold different values feel they share a common sense of purpose.
The shared stories, histories, symbols and values that make us feel we belong to the same nation (the ‘imagined community’, as historian Benedict Anderson famously conceptualised it) are always changing. Fifty years ago, to be British or English was synonymous for many with being white. That’s true of neither identity today.