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The Labour Party has recently been advised to showcase its patriotism and let the electorate know it is proud to be British. This is never bad advice for a mainstream political party with designs on power. Labour has in the past enjoyed electoral success when its redistributionist policies have sprung, at least in part, from an obvious love of country. There’s also a certain urgency in the suggestion, since the Corbyn leadership convinced many former Labour voters that the party was careless about British identity and perhaps even hostile to British interests. 

Nevertheless, it would be foolish for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party to enter into a competition with the Tories to see who looks better with the national flag, which for a good deal of its career has appeared to the left to signify satisfaction with the social order as it exists. So, what opportunities do exist for Labour in the patriot game?

Class and nation

Class and nation have always provided two alternative points of self-definition for Labour. The party’s traditional aim, at least since 1918, had been to blend the concepts and argue that the working class was the nation. The ‘social patriotism’ that this fusion generated, especially in times of crisis, was a patriotism that could deliver social services, wealth taxes, dividend controls, and the nationalisation of basic industries in the name of the British people.

Without ever subscribing to the Marxist concept of class struggle, the party was far too conscious of class division to give a full-throated cheer to symbols of nationalism or even be stirred by notions of ‘national interest’. Keir Starmer may follow the advice of the advertising wonks and find himself positioned more and more in front of the Union Jack, but he ought to know how unusual that would be for a Labour politician.

The only peacetime reference to the presence of the national flag at a Labour meeting that I know of is from a Mass Observer at a Bolton Labour Party meeting in 1937, but even here the presence of the Union Jack on the chairman’s table went down badly with the regulars: ‘Makes me sick’ said one man. ‘They only do it because they know the Evening News is coming.’ 

Where does Keir Starmer’s party stand in relation to this history? Certainly class, traditionally Labour’s most accessible avenue to patriotism, has become less promising territory in the twenty-first century. By most reckonings, the manual working class now constitutes between 40 and 50 per cent of the population—certainly no longer enough to make it coterminous with ‘the people’ or ‘the nation.’

A left of centre party will always want to police the border where patriotism shades into chauvinism and it will surely be less keen to describe any lack of agreement about its policies as a want of patriotism, as the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, recently did over Labour’s opposition to the Internal Market Bill. Yes, the ‘red wall’ needs winning back, and the nationalistic currents that helped produce Brexit do need to be navigated. But the British voter has a good ear for phoniness and the sudden, ubiquitous appearance of the Union Jack on Labour platforms would probably do more harm than good. 

Where Starmer might go

It is, of course, largely because of the Jeremy Corbyn interregnum that the question has been raised. From an historical perspective it’s hard to exaggerate just how unusual Corbyn’s leadership was and how much it scrambled the public’s perception of the Labour Party and what it stood for.

The party’s instincts, rightly, will always be to reject the ‘drum and bugle’ version of British history in preference for something which shows how the nation’s liberties have emerged from political struggle and the vigorous national tradition of dissent. Similarly, the sense of who we are as a nation will always be linked—for better and for worse—with how we have operated internationally. In short, the left will celebrate Peterloo before Waterloo, Nelson Mandela before Horatio Nelson. There is no evidence at all that this kind of patriotism is alienating to the majority of the British people. It never was. And it certainly isn’t now in the multicultural society we are becoming.

The voting public, including the lost working-class voters of 2019, will not be impressed by Keir Starmer telling them he is patriotic. He can show them, though: first, by continuing to discard the residues of Corbynism; and second, by honouring the real heroes of the pandemic and explaining how most had to perform their duty in public institutions deprived, for ten years, of adequate funds. Finally, he can remind people that the sudden spread of what many instinctively feel to be the un-British practice of cronyism or clientelism was an inefficient and corrupting way for the United Kingdom to deal with a major crisis. All the while he should insist that post-Covid Britain should redistribute the economic burden fairly and restore transparency and accountability to the process of government. 

A longer version of this article was originally published in the Political Quarterly journal.