Patriotism and Policy
Labour Twitter is a small and weird part of the Internet. While some issues, such as Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend provision of Free School Meals, provide unanimous agreement, others cause such polarising conflicts that it’s sometimes difficult to believe that everyone involved is in the same party. The most recent debate has been on the role of patriotism within the Labour Party. Recently a leaked document stated that the Labour Party would “make use of the union flag, veterans and dressing smartly” ahead of the 2021 local elections. Whilst some have voiced their opposition to this approach, it is a symbolic gesture that, if combined with the correct policies, could be a successful formula.
Polling suggests that one of the main reasons for former Labour voters deserting the party in December 2019 was the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. One of the previous regimes’ errors was that its’ attitude on issues like the Salisbury poisonings led to a perception that the Labour Party did not love the United Kingdom. It is unfair to suggest that the party is anti-British, but the brutal reality is that perceptions matter and actions like this at least go some way towards signalling that this is not the case. The claim made by Clive Lewis that Labour is “moving down the track of the nativist right” is wide of the mark. Flags are often used by left and centre-left figures across the world, from Joe Biden to Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford; nobody would accuse them of belonging to the “nativist right.” It is understandable that some believe the nation’s flag has negative connotations due to its’ use by the likes of Nigel Farage, but many do not share this view. Furthermore, by continuing to dismiss those who do feel affinity with the UK’s national symbols as “flag shaggers”, it only pushes them further into the arms of the populist right.
However, it is true that patriotism should also be demonstrated through the party’s economic agenda; protecting and supporting the UK’s public services, institutions and low-income citizens must be a priority too. Criticism has been levelled at Keir Starmer for his lack of policy positions during his first 10 months as leader, and if Labour were to begin backing George Osborne-esque cuts in the post-covid landscape, the core support and membership would rightly be disappointed. However, this assumption that flag-waving and centre-left economics are mutually exclusive is the real misconception of the issue – Starmer and Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds have indicated that they favour a Keynesian approach to the economic recovery. Labour’s lost voters, particularly in the North and Midlands, are especially likely to find this combination appealing – although concerns with Corbynite economic policies partly contributed to the 2019 defeat, the main issues which divided the party from many in its’ heartland seats were based on identity. Provided the party remains staunchly in opposition to cuts in public spending, the focus on patriotism could form part of a winning strategy – something which is badly needed.