Almost two months on, and Labour are still largely paralysed by their English problem. Their disaster in Scotland got the immediate headlines, and then the bloodletting over Project Miliband began, but there is still only limited recognition of how badly the party did in England.
In Chris White’s piece this morning on the mechanics of the new EVEL proposals, he presents a remarkable set of numbers:
‘Whilst the Conservatives have a working majority of 16 on UK matters, on English consent votes in the Grand Committee and on Commons Consideration of Lords Amendments, this will jump to a whopping 104 majority, and for English and Welsh consent votes, a majority of 86.’
Those figures are devastating – while Labour indulge in an intense bout of fretting about Scotland (with good reason), they don’t seem to want to face up to the fact they were also drubbed South of the border. Even if they had won every seat in Scotland, they still wouldn’t have a majority in the Commons.
If they did want to acknowledge their English problem, they could do worse than to consider two items of news from the last two days.
The first was supplied by the Father of the House, Labour’s Gerald Kaufman, during the debate on English Votes on English Laws:
“Even the title of this motion sounds racist.”
Strangely Mr Kaufman has no track record of blasting devolution to other parts of the United Kingdom as “racist” (and I can’t find any accounts of him similarly attacking Gordon Brown’s “British Jobs for British Workers” slogan as such). Nor did he offer any evidence for his extraordinary claim, leaving us to conclude that it was simply the use of the word “English” which to him smacked of racism.
The second is Tristram Hunt’s article in today’s Times where, in among a clumsy attempt to define something he calls “John Lewis voters”, he writes:
“Labour took the people of Scotland for granted. We risk a similar fate in other parts of Britain where the phrase “Labour stronghold” has become code for complacency. Of the 29 seats in the northeast, we hold 26 of them. It is a region that needs a modern Labour agenda — raising education standards in schools, driving private sector investment, managing migration, delivering a reformed NHS, making the progressive case for Europe and reforming the welfare state based on contribution. But it is a region that, like too many other parts of Britain, has not heard us communicate it effectively enough.”
Hunt is right that Labour take the North East of England for granted, but that’s about as correct as he gets. His proposed remedy is based on a fairly tin-eared understanding of the North East. One of the last redoubts of the traditional Labour vote, its electoral results are driven more by a historic dislike of the Conservatives than any particular enthusiasm for, say, “the progressive case for Europe”. Hunt includes concern about immigration on his list, but he skims over it as blandly as possible. When Nigel Farage invited Ed Miliband for a drink in a Tyneside Working Men’s Club he was acutely pointing to the fact that, in terms of actual values, the right-on left have few fans in one of their own heartlands.
In 2004, the North East gave Labour a bloody nose in the regional assembly referendum. The reasons were threefold – the assembly was a bad idea, the ballot offered a chance to show dislike of Labour without seeming to endorse the Conservatives and, crucially, the Yes campaign typified that party’s patronising attitude to people it took utterly for granted. People knew the reason they were the only ones being subjected to such a referendum was that Labour casually assumed that anything they wanted would be supported there. On the question itself, the Yes campaign argued that Westminster Government ignored the North East – which, at a time when the Prime Minister represented a seat in County Durham, led people to wonder if that said more about his priorities than anything else.
These, of course, are also voters who would think Kaufman’s painful political correctness absolutely ridiculous. They don’t see any problem with being English, and they don’t have any time for people who want to fret that England ought to be ashamed of itself.
These two snippets are only the most recent examples of Labour’s failure to understand England. Think of Emily Thornberry’s infamous flag tweet, or the Labour candidate who called people who fly the flag of St George ‘simpletons or casual racists’. Consider Blair’s decision to leave England completely out of his unequal devolution settlement, despite its large Barnett bill to fund the other Home Nations, or Prescott’s campaign to carve the country up into arbitrary regions. Given that sorry narrative, it’s hard not to think that George Orwell had a point when he wrote, in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, that:
‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.’
Until the modern Left ends that tradition, their English problem will persist.