Labour “patriotism” is economic security, not flag waving and foreign wars.
The nineteen Labour MP’s who voted against the Whip on the Overseas Operations Bill, particularly the three newbies, are to be applauded for sending clear signals that the Tory Bill will not only set us against international norms but also threaten the security of our serving personnel.
The downside is that the Tories will seek to portray them, isolated from their Labour colleagues, as anti-services and unpatriotic. The newly elected Tory MP’s in the Red Wall seats will play it for all it is worth against us and this results poor tactics from the leadership but also from a misunderstanding of some the Left of the role of the uniformed services play, both socially and economically, in many of the “heartland seats”.
The misunderstanding is only matched by the abuse from the Right of the Party in committing them to needless conflicts and sacrifice and allowing them to become the tail to the US adventuring dog. The Left misunderstanding is exacerbated by the failure to promote local candidates as MP’s and inflicting political “wannabees” and careerists unable to understand or interpret their community to metropolitan Westminster.
I have spent time campaigning in the “heartland seats” and originate from market town politics and recognised the role this misunderstanding, alongside Brexit, played in the 2019 defeat but also the much longer decline in Labour Party fortunes in these seats. For many in the party the support for the armed forces and “patriotism” is seen as an expression of nationalism and xenophobia and the so called “nostalgia for Empire”. I have never heard anyone on the doorstep talk about Empire or longing for colonial service but I have heard a longing for the State to protect them from hostile “markets” and to provide services, such as decent housing, education and most importantly jobs. They fear the tread of globalism rather than celebration its promise.
It is no coincidence that a common sight in areas suffering long term industrial decline is the Army recruitment stall and that the TV commercial for the Navy advertises “ born in Blythe, made in the Navy”. Whether it is Chesterfield, Barnsley Doncaster or Blythe it has been an important option to avoid the dead end jobs or more importantly the other army, that of the reserve army of the unemployed. For many families, it is also the opportunity to see their child avoid some of the social disintegration that threatens these communities and to “get away”. In the ’80s many father or mother told their, mainly sons it has to be said, that the forces offered a chance to learn a trade and safeguard their future not realising that our politicians from both parties were instead inviting them to join killing machines to progress political careers and to widen economic imperialism. Support for service from families also helped strengthen solidarity in those communities and for an ethos based on service rather than cash. Some of us chose different paths to find that ethos by joining other nationalistic, militaristic and uniformed services, namely British Rail, National Coal Board, British Gas and local Councils, also engines designed to prevent the “reserve army of the unemployed” growing and now destroyed. Those services may not have been perfect but drove local economies, offered training and also trade unions that offered working people “agency” to negotiate and change their lives in an economy not dominated by the “market”. For the Labour Party, this reflection of nationalism also provided the Party with a cadre of political recruits steeped in practice of day to day negotiation and delivery of services to their communities and also understanding the desire of security and solidarity. Political education, as well as service as Councillors and MP’s, resulted in a voice in the corridors of power.
In his book Capital Thomas Piketty celebrates Les Trente Glorieuses, the years 1945-75, when economies grew at an unprecedented rate, but unfortunately he sees it as an historical anomaly compared to previous recessions following war. I would argue it was because of State intervention and planning that the anomaly occurred and it is that security of State and solidarity that “heartland communities” long for and for the longing for Brexit. For some nationalism is as much a statement of class as of any xenophobia.
Are these the ramblings of a Little Englander, the longings for nostalgia or the harsh realities that the State is the level of sovereignty recognised by most of the electorate and we desert that battleground to the benefit of the Right at our cost. It can also deliver agency, a word now coming into vogue among the Radio 4 chattering classes, something more and more people will long for as the power of globalised capitalised threatens more communities and dominates their lives. Many see a utopian end to capitalism through globalisation but it will not go quietly. Globalised capital will only be defeated by a unit of sovereignty able to resist it and to have popular support in a positive way. We must also remember that a Labour Party in the Trente Glorieuses turned its back on Empire and set the course for releasing the colonial yolk and Wilson also turned his back on the Vietnam adventure.
If Starmer thinks that tying his political wagon to the Tory version of a Boys Own and Biggles vision of patriotism is the way forward then he is wrong and needs to learn that the Labour vision needs to be of community solidarity, economic security and agency. The Left too need to understand that vision and not to desert the battleground of sovereignty and State to the Right in favour of some “faux internationalism”. Global capitalism is not internationalism. CLR James said “ Each working class must win its battle at home to become truly international”.
My early politics and longing for fundamental change were blighted by the undermining of Michael Foot by the PLP in 1983 and draw to a close with the same of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019. My regard for the PLP sits like bile at the back of my throat and far too may regard office as a prize rather than a responsibility but my faith in my class remains and the principled stand of the nineteen still leaves me some hope in the Party. I was once told that when an MP crosses the threshold of Westminster they are lost to you but the stand out 19 have bucked that trend. Only 200 more to go.
Article by Dave Berry