Labour’s Identity Crisis

Dawn Foster

On Newsnight last week, Gillian Duffy, the 71-year-old branded 'a sort of bigoted woman' by Gordon Brown during the 2010 election campaign, was interviewed in a segment on the European Union referendum. The EU, Duffy claimed, wasted 'trillions' each year, but she also said she was 'frightened of losing our identity, that’s what I’m afraid of, we’ll never get England back to how it was.'

In the five years since Brown’s gaffe, Duffy has been hunted down repeatedly by journalists, to be asked her views on Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, the direction of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn’sleadership and now the EU referendum. Duffy’s insights into politics aren’t groundbreaking in their perspicacity: she’s treated as a curio, trotted out as a bellwether of working-class feeling. For journalists and MPs, Duffy is a way of ventriloquising right-wing sentiments, so they don't have to voice them personally. The trope of the taxi driver who ‘tells it like it is’ (Michael Crick is a recent offender) is beyond cliché, but it persists because for many people in the political world, sitting in the back of a taxi is the only time they’re forced to speak to a working-class person for more than a minute.

It’s handy for politicians to find a working-class voter who happily attacks their political enemies and complains bitterly about ‘metropolitan liberals’. As a reporter who grew up in one of the poorest cities in Britain, and spends time writing on poverty, and travelling to hard-hit post-industrial towns and villages, I hear a huge diversity of political opinion around the country. But for Tristram Hunt, a man so in tune with the working class that he once crossed a picket line to give a lecture on Marx, this isn’t the case.

Hunt is concerned that 'Labour doesn't speak for England,' and thinks this is a 'sentiment repeated across the country'. The working classes are supposedly anti-metropolitan (read: anti-immigration) and worried about Englishness, clamouring for more English nationalism and patriotism, but that can't explain Labour’s recent electoral defeats in Wales, or complete devastation in Scotland. (Though it's possible that opposition to metropolitan elites explains the low turnout in 2015 in Stoke-on-Trent Central, the only place in the country where it dropped below 50 per cent. The MP, Tristram Hunt, was elected with the backing of fewer than 20 per cent of his constituents.)

Labour's Identity Crisis: England and the Politics of Patriotism, edited by Hunt, has contributions from a host of MPs and unsuccessful candidates on Labour’s ‘identity problem’.But it boils down to an attack on Labour’s leadership for being too left wing. One failed candidate claims campaigners were 'viewed like middle-class Ryanair passengers having to stomach a couple of hours’ flight with people they shared little in common with; it could be uncomfortable, but it got you where you needed to go.'

The son of a baron, Hunt went to private school and Cambridge before becoming an MP: it’s odd that criticisms of ‘metropolitan elites’ in the party ignore his position. 'You are the top 1 percent,' Hunt recently told Cambridge students. 'The Labour party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward.' Odd words for a sudden champion of the working classes.

Labour does have a problem regaining working-class votes: this isn’t a sudden phenomenon linked to Corbyn, but a long-term one with roots in the New Labour project. Hunt doesn't have the solution because he's part of the problem. Treating working-class people like Gillian Duffy and fictional cab drivers as quaint but racist oracles isn’t the way to win votes. A better place to start would be with more working-class MPs.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Paul Myerscough: Corbyn in the Media · 22 October 2015

Tariq Ali: Corbyn's Progress · 3 March 2016

Owen Hatherley: The Neo-Elite · 23 October 2014


  • 23 May 2016 at 6:29pm
    Robert says:
    wonderful blog, thanks

    • 24 May 2016 at 8:56pm
      Greencoat says: @ Robert
      Wonderful only in the sense that like so many articles since 2015 it misses the point.

      How can there be ‘more working-class MPs’ when the Labour Party is drifting further and further away from the people who are supposed to produce them?

  • 23 May 2016 at 7:11pm
    Jonathan W says:
    I'm from a small town and now live in London. I believe the main reason Cameron has kept his election manifesto promise-the only one he's kept-to hold the EU referendum is beause he knew Labour's position would be 'in' and that that would cost Labour a lot of working class votes. The two main reasons being the relentless onslaught of almost all of the UK's media. Not just regarding the referendum, but generally; and, immigration. When Labour politicians and the commentariat talk about the benefits to "our" economy that immigration brings in terms of tax and national insurance contributions, these benefits can seem abstract and remote. What doesn't seem abstract or remote is the effect of a population increase to the tune of several million, mostly un-skilled/semi skilled workers entering the workforce over a relatively short period of time. As I said at the start, I'm from a small town, and walking around a small town, that in modern history at least, has had very little immigration, and seeing and hearing Eastern Europeans more than English people is quite disconcerting. It's actually quite a shock. At the risk of hyperbole, it can feel like 'you've' been taken over-as abstract to the Labour politician and the commentariat as the "contribution to our economy" is to the average working class man or woman in a smalkt town, or anywhere for that matter. Not to mention the crime. There's nearly 400 Eastern Europeans "on the run" convicted in absence, in Lincolnshire. There's been several murders-Boston is per capita murder capital of the UK, all Eastern Europeans. In small towns, everything is very pronounced, clostraphobic to anyone who's used to living the large scale of the city, and whilst the majority of the recent immigrants may be 'model citizens', there is a sizable element, small percentage, but a signifiant enough amount, for this to be very noticable. Add to that, high rents and low wages (the affects of immigration on these is debatable) and your average working class man or woman would think ANYONE who tells them migration on scale it has been in recent years are...., I'll leave it to your imagination as to what you think the most appropiate word should be.

  • 23 May 2016 at 9:02pm
    JonathanDawid says:
    I have no particularly high regard for Tristram Hunt, but it is unfair to say that he is the "son of a baron" as if he were some aristocratic scion. His father was a Cambridge academic and former head of the Met Office who was given a life peerage by Tony Blair - after his son's graduation.

  • 24 May 2016 at 8:27am
    Phil Edwards says:
    Hunt also criticised Corbyn for having "cosmopolitan views", which he counterposed to the good honest English patriotism of the native working class. Perhaps someone should mention it to Baroness Royall.

    Incidentally, Tristram Hunt was briefly considering a run for the Labour Party leadership after the election last year. His pitch at the time was that Labour wasn't middle-class enough:

    "We're on the side of the underprivileged, on the side of the NHS, on the side of a fantastic state education system. But we"re also on the side of those families who want to shop at John Lewis and go on holiday and build their extension. And that wasn't coming through in Worcester, in Southampton, or Lincoln or Carlisle and that's where we lost."

    • 24 May 2016 at 11:09am
      frmurphy98 says: @ Phil Edwards
      Tristram's anguished prescriptions for "what Labour must do" and "what Labour must be" are clearly a moveable feast. But no matter how many nor how rapid the contradictions he'll be permanently regarded by the media as the party's most serious and perceptive thinker.

  • 24 May 2016 at 2:05pm
    Woolwich22 says:
    This analysis is very disappointing. There is an interesting, and potentially very productive, conversation to be had about the centre left's inability to address the politics of national identity. Sadly this blog does not attempt to engage in that conversation.

    The only thing the author seemingly has to say is that Hunt is too 'posh' to comment on the matter. The ideas expressed in the collection of essays are barely addressed. Where they are, the author claims that the notion of Labour's disconnect with nationalism and national identity has no explanatory value for election results in Scotland and Wales. For the former, the ascendancy of an unashamedly nationalistic political movement may in fact have a lot to tell us about this phenomena. In Wales, UKIP make much of their patriotism.

    The fleeting effort by the author to provide some explanation of why Labour may be failing to address England's identity politics is a throw away comment blaming New Labour. There may be something in that observation, but had the author spent more time expanding on why that might be, and less time deriding Hunt's social background, this blog may have been a more useful contribution to the debate.

  • 24 May 2016 at 5:27pm
    ejh says:
    In his Guardian piece that introduced this particular political initiative, Hunt declared:

    As George Orwell put it: “In leftwing circles it is always felt 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.” He was right: in no other progressive European tradition – from the French Socialist party to Spain’s Podemos – do you find a similar reluctance to fly the flag.

    Very straightforwardly, this is garbage. The present flag of Spain is in fact exceedingly controversial and many leftists, particularly of the type who are likely to belong to or vote for Podemos, prefer the flag of the Second Republic.

    It's just possible that Hunt has confused Podemos with PSOE, whose leader, Pedro Sánchez, gave at least one speech last year in front of an enormous flag of the current variety. But if that's what he meant, it is not what he said and it's an error he might like to correct.

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