Ah. Here we ago again. “Leak reveals Labour plan to focus on flag and patriotism to win back voters“.
And the reactions are pretty predictable too – Clive Lewis MP expresses caution, Ian Dunt tries to separate patriotism from nationalism, Sunder Katwala puts up pictures of Labour leaders with union flags, and Rob Ford puts some statistics on it.
This sort of argument has always annoyed me, and now looking back at it after some years living in Germany it annoys me even more.
First of all there is something very English about all of this. Yes, the Union Flag is the flag of the UK, but the participants in this discussion are heavily English. Ask people in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland about this and you will get very different reactions. Indeed there is a healthy dose of Starmer (and indeed Johnson) putting up the Union Flag as being a symbol supportive of UK unionism, while the reaction they provoke in so doing in Cardiff or Edinburgh is much more ambiguous and complicated.
As if that were not enough there are all the historical connotations of the flag as well – and those are not positive connotations for all of those who see it, even among a good chunk of the voting population resident in the UK. There is even the extent to which UK politics has comparatively been a low-flag polity, historically, and this is at odds with that. Which ties into the revision of the use of flags, and their connection to English and British nationalism – if Britain is somehow seen as an essentially benign and ethical player, worldwide, then the use of the flag carries less negative connotation than if its use is accompanied by the words “world-beating” and a superiority complex. In other words, to be more repulsed by the flag now than a decade or two ago is possibly both understandable and justifiable.
On top of this there is a healthy does of supposed political professionals being patronising here – it’s what those people out in the provinces, in the “red wall” (that we’re now supposed to call “foundation seats”), actually want – so that is what we will serve up. But that all looks like tactical positioning, rather than an actual belief, when it comes to the Labour Party doing it. Labour is never going to out-patriot or out-flag-wave the Tories, and probably should not try, and – internally – this sort of approach is an anathema to a whole chunk of its membership, and they are going to be the ones who are actually going to have to be mobilised to go and fight election campaigns. There is a limit to how long members can hold their nose and keep on doing that.
There is also headache of the very terms used here. I understand the patriotic vs. nationalist distinction that Ian Dunt tries to make, but I cannot even bring myself to define myself as patriotic – “Love of and devotion to one’s country” Well, what is my country? And indeed what was ever my country? I was born and brought up in South Wales, my father is from Leicestershire, and I am just as reluctant about Welshness as I am about Englishness or about Britishness. And also – on top of that – Newport in the 1980s and 1990s was a post-industrial wasteland, not somewhere I ever had a devotion to – because I did not fit there. But conversely I have a very intense wish that Newport could succeed, that the people there deserve better – that their prospects should be as good as those living in other parts of Wales, other parts of the UK, other parts of Europe or the world. There is something about patriotism and pride that I cannot shake.
But that then brings me to the possible answer. Demonstrate you care, as a politician or a party, through the actions you take and the changes you want to make, and the professionalism of your approach, not through the flags and symbols you dress yourselves with. In the worst case, symbols are used to mask a dearth of actual ideas how to solve very real problems. There is even a pretty solid case why Labour should take this approach and downplay identity questions – its economic policies are closer to its voters’ views on this than they are to cultural or behavioural issues as Philip Cowley, Alan Wager and Tim Bale show.
Vis à vis other parties, Labour toning down the imagery might not be a bad idea either – the Lib Dems and Greens are nowhere currently, but come the next General Election will be offering an alternative on the left, and one that is more civic, cosmopolitan and post-national than Labour’s – Labour needs to stop votes seeping to those parties on one side, just as sees a need to regain the seats it lost in 2019 on the other. And then there are the twin headaches of elections in Wales and Scotland this year – exactly the places where too many Union Flags likely play badly.