13 February 2016
On English identity and Labour
The language of human ‘identity’ often misleads us into thinking about it as something out there which matches something in here – a literal ‘it’ which is identical in both, rather like in a mathematical equation.
In this way you would have an English identity for example if you somehow matched up to a list of English identifiers which we can measure you against. There is an ‘it’ of Englishness out there in this sort of account, and whoever has access to it can decree how English you are by comparing their checklist to you and your likes, dislikes, activities etc.
My point here is that someone else other than you can carry out this operation of identity without involving you at all. It is an authoritarian relation, attained by someone with authority matching their knowledge of what an identity is against you and coming up with a result on their terms of what these ‘its’ - of identity and you - are.
The same goes when we measure up any sort of identity – to Englishness, to the Labour Party or to the left more generally for example – it is our ‘it’ we are measuring up to and it is us doing it. The activity of measuring up and prescribing what measurements apply is what makes the identification.
For the Labour Party now, Englishness and England have become live issues that many in and around the party have started to concern themselves with – better late than never we might say. During the week I attended the first seminar of a series at Westminster being run by the former Labour MP John Denham, who has been on the case for a while now and is pushing it further from a new position as Professor of English Identity and Politics at Winchester University. You can see John’s reflections on this first seminar (entitled Does England Matter?), on his website the Optimistic Patriot.
There were some interesting contributions from Labour politicians including Lisa Nandy MP, Camden Council leader Sarah Hayward and other MPs including Caroline Flint, Jonny Reynolds and Gavin Shuker – plus others like the academic Mike Kenny and the Labour research expert Lewis Baston. I also garbled out a few words offering caution on getting too prescriptive about identity and favouring a new English national anthem as a great way to open up the space of identity - in terms of something to be explored in a democratic process rather than administered from above. Toby Perkins, another Labour MP, has a Private Members’ Bill on a new anthem going through Parliament, but there was little if any mention, let alone support for this, from our gathered politicians.
It is early days, and the whole point of such processes is to get where you’re going through discussion and reflection and further discussion. But I couldn’t help but feel that old politician’s instinct and drive to administrate hanging in the air. We can’t quite help ourselves in trying to nail these things down – to assert and administrate who we are, what it (our version of Englishness or England) is and see who goes along with it and who doesn’t. It therefore becomes subsumed into the political process of drawing dividing lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, friends and enemies, demarcating who belongs and who doesn’t. In turn this defeats what should surely be the object of letting more positive, inclusive versions of Englishness flourish (than those which are commonplace at the moment).
There are significant dangers for the wider Labour and liberal-left families here, for Englishness as identity at the moment often manifests itself as a negativity (both in relating others and ourselves to it), a defensiveness and as victimhood. Moreover, that defensiveness and victimhood is largely directed at things that the dominant factions in Labour and the wider liberal-left world uphold –particularly continual mass immigration. Labour’s tendency in talking to itself and fixing its own identity relations is often one which goes directly against a large body of the population. Simply positing those on to England and Englishness and saying that what we are is what England is/should be would be disastrous.
In that respect I think it’s important that we shouldn’t be in the business of fixing what Englishness is. However you try and do it, what you fix would not accord with what a great many people feel about themselves and their world – indeed it could easily alienate broad swathes from the start. Rather it is best to seek to open it up, challenge narrow definitions where and when they appear but not fall into the trap of prescribing or defining ourselves around particular alternatives. Among other things this means avoiding the tendency to always revert back to how important immigration and immigrants are to Englishness. There is certainly some truth in this account, but unless you emphasise how important those of non-immigrant backgrounds are too, you find yourselves inevitably narrowing to an ‘us’ and ‘them’ that excludes as well as includes and defeats the whole purpose.
These existential questions are inherently delicate and difficult to deal with, but for Labour they are fraught with difficulty, which perhaps partly explains why so many in the party want to avoid them altogether.
Nevertheless, with polling showing how a consciousness of English identity has risen significantly in recent years, they need to be taken on by any political party with national pretensions, let alone one like Labour which has been showing signs of possible extinction across much of England.