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Working class people will gain nothing from ‘patriotism’

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In a recent party broadcast, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer appeared beside a Union Jack. Nick Clark examines why Labour hopes to gain from nationalism—and why it’s wrong
Issue 2741
Nationalism offers working class people nothing
Nationalism offers working class people nothing (Pic: Lee-Anne Inglis)

There are layers upon layers of dangerous lies behind Labour’s turn towards nationalism under Keir Starmer.

The biggest lie is that this is something unifying and progressive. The most dangerous is that it’s about identifying with the needs and demands of working class people.

For all the pretence that talking about “patriotism” shouldn’t be taken as a sop to racism and the right, it very clearly is.

Why else would Labour target areas where it thinks patriotism is an election-winning issue with adverts carrying the dog whistle message, “Britain is locked down. But the borders are still open. Any idea why?”

Labour has decided it lost the 2019 general election because it was too left wing—or that it wasn’t patriotic enough. So it’s out with anti-racism and being anti-war, and in with support for the cops, the army and border controls.

Even the people in focus groups used to justify Starmer’s strategy don’t mention patriotism or Britishness. Instead there’s a view that “Starmer needs to stop sitting on the fence.”

One ex-Labour voter from Grimsby thinks Labour “have left real people, taxpayers behind.”

And there’s a truth behind this. Working class people have been “left behind”—by all mainstream parties—for decades. But it’s nothing to do with nationality.

Industries have been closed, jobs slashed, wages driven down, services privatised, and housing made expensive and insecure.

All that was made possible by a series of governments—Tory and Labour—that said this is how things should be. And it has meant misery for ordinary people, British or not—and a deep resentment that can be made to point in all sorts of directions.

So now it suits Labour to make that resentment a matter of patriotism and national identity.

Partly that’s because it helps its leaders to get away from class politics, and avoid talking about the real causes of people’s problems.

Partly it’s because they think it’s an easy way to pick up votes. As if by cloaking nationalism in progressive language, Labour can be all things to all people.

It only ever benefits the right.

It’s not surprising if some people buy into nationalistic ideas. For years politicians and the press pumped out lies to scapegoat migrants and Muslims and justify wars, all dressed up in the language of nationalism.

And for most of those years, Labour played a grubby role in helping those lies along (see box).

Patriotism is the bread and butter that feeds the right. It encourages people to believe they have something in common with those at the top—and sets them against others at the bottom.

The racists win when Labour turn to nationalism

The Labour right says the party can’t win without appealing to nationalism. But as Labour’s own recent history shows, the real winners are the racists.

Labour prime minister Gordon Brown adopted the slogan “British jobs for British workers” in 2007. The slogan then wormed its way into the trade union movement.

Derek Simpson, the then leader of the Unite union, took it up with backing from right wing rag the Daily Star in 2009.

It soon became a demand of some striking construction workers to blame migrant workers for poor conditions.

The ugly face of Labour
The ugly face of Labour
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It didn’t help those workers. But the Nazis of the growing British National Party appreciated it—they used it as their campaign slogan that year, confident that it was mainstream.

A few years later, Labour felt threatened by the rise of the racist Ukip party. Ed Miliband flirted with “Blue Labour” which championed “family, faith and flag”.

Blue Labour’s founder, Maurice Glasman, said Labour had to come “together to forge a common good in their communities, workplaces and across the nation”.

What he really meant was that Labour should support a “complete ban on immigration” and bring the interests of racist English Defence League supporters “to the table”.

Labour didn’t benefit, but Ukip went on to some of its best ever election results.

Nationalism is the bread and butter that feeds the right. It encourages people to believe they have something in common with those at the top—and sets them against others at the bottom.

Starmer says patriotism “drives our movement.” That’s another lie—he knows that it divides us.

Not all support ‘British values’

Plenty of Labour members and supporters are disgusted and horrified by the party’s turn to nationalism—and it’s not because they’re middle class or metropolitan.

There are huge sections of working class people for who “Britishness,” “patriotism” and “traditional values” really mean racism and violence.

You probably have less love for Britain if you’ve suffered at the hands of its cruel immigration system, or been targeted by racists wrapped in the Union Jack.

For most people in the world—and many people in Britain—British history is one of slavery, racism, Empire and war.

Even the notion of “British values” is a weapon. Politicians might say British values mean something vague like “fairness” or “openness.”

Then they demand migrants and Muslims show they believe British values by declaring their loyalty to Britain.

If you oppose Britain’s wars, you don’t like Britain’s border controls, or you don’t trust the cops, then you’re “anti-British” and you don’t like British values—especially if you’re Muslim.

Large numbers of working class black people, Muslims and migrants all look to Labour as something better than the naked racism of the Tories.

Starmer is treating those working class people with contempt.

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