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The Labour Party and the ‘national interest’

This article is over 7 years, 2 months old
There’s nothing new about MPs’ calls for the Labour Party to embrace ‘patriotism’—and nothing good can come of putting nation before class, warns Nick Clark
Issue 2548
Right wing Labour MP Chuka Umunna

Right wing Labour MP Chuka Umunna (Pic: Josh Blacker / Flickr)

Some politicians are desperate to wrap themselves in the union jack flag—and not just on the right. Many Labour MPs are obsessed with patriotism and the “national interest”.

Right wing Labour MP Chuka Umunna told Labour members last year not to “underestimate the importance of us illustrating that we are as patriotic as anyone else”.

And soft left MP Lisa Nandy bemoaned Labour’s supposed neglect of patriotism allowing it “to become the exclusive property of the right”.

Part of this is a response to Labour’s internal crisis and poor figures in the polls.

Some MPs prefer to chase after the nationalism and anti-immigrant racism of the Tories and Ukip rather than defy it. Others will use any stick to beat Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

But the problem is as old as Labour and goes to the heart of its ideology. Labour has always been torn over whether it is the party of the working class or the party of the nation.

That tension goes a long way to explaining why Labour behaves the way it does.

The idea underlying Labour is that the interests of the working class can be defended within the capitalist system. To do that it must win government.

But capitalism is organised through nation states which have their own interests to defend.

And the British state currently has a lot to worry about. Brexit and the possibility of Scottish independence come after years of economic crisis and decades of imperial decline.

Politicians who seek to manage that state need to show themselves capable of holding it together.


That’s why Labour MPs are always horrified when their activists or their leader seem to clash with the British state.

It’s why many MPs were outraged when Corbyn refused to block the triggering of Brexit or a second referendum on Scottish independence in parliament.

They resent not only his opposition to nuclear weapons and imperialist wars but even his reluctance to bow before the queen or sing the national anthem.

Even Labour’s current crisis is framed by the right as a betrayal of the national interest. The New Statesman magazine last week mournfully accused Labour of failing in its “constitutional duty” to play the role of “Her Majesty’s Opposition”.

But the “national interest” is a fake unity. There is a very real division in society, between the workers whose labour keeps the economy turning and the bosses who exploit them.

Their interests are fundamentally opposed. Bosses’ profits come at workers’ expense, and any gains for workers represent a threat to bosses.

The state is supposed to be above this conflict, elected by all classes to govern for all classes.

But the state isn’t neutral at all. It relies on a “strong” economy.

And in a system whose health depends on exploiting workers, this comes down to the interests of the bosses. So when it boils down to it, representing the national interest really means managing the interests of the ruling class.

The Labour right will use any stick to beat Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

The Labour right will use any stick to beat Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Pic: Neil Terry)

This is an issue for all politicians, but it’s particularly acute for Labour. The Tories and the racists of Ukip don’t have to worry much about proving their commitment to nationalism.

The “butcher’s apron” of the flag suits them down to the ground.

Labour has to work harder to prove it can be trusted to run that state “responsibly”. This isn’t just about cuts and austerity, but also showing Labour will look after the core institutions of the state.

So some of the most pompous displays of nationalism have come from Labour MPs.

When Labour formed its first government in 1924, its ministers fell over themselves to conform to the pomp and ceremony of going to the king to form the government.

Leader Ramsay MacDonald assured King George his “earnest desire was to serve his king and country”.

He promised to use “all of his influence and that of his moderate and immediate friends” to stop Labour MPs singing socialist anthem The Red Flag in parliament.


For some in Labour, the idea of lumping together those who are divided is appealing for electoral reasons.

Labour’s focus on getting elected means it tries to appeal for votes from all sections of public opinion, left or right. Holding them all together can be a fine balancing act of contradictory policies.

Using patriotism to unite everyone behind a fictitious “national interest” can be a useful way of holding those contradictions together—or even concealing them.

As Umunna wrote, Labour politicians should try and “harness the power of patriotism to accentuate our essential sameness and build bonds of trust between Britons of all backgrounds”.

Labour politicians hope that giving nationalism a progressive sheen can make right wing policies that suit the bosses and the state seem palatable to their left wing supporters.

Was patriotic reformer Clement Attlee on the Labour Party’s left or right?
Was patriotic reformer Clement Attlee on the Labour Party’s left or right?
  Read More

They also hope that giving progressive ideas a nationalist tinge can make them acceptable to the right wing voters they hope to attract.

But this balancing act can’t last forever. Conflicts will inevitably break out, forcing Labour to pick a side or appear paralysed and weak.

MPs often say they have to represent all of their constituents, no matter who they voted for or which class they’re part of.

This simply means abdicating from putting forward workers’ interests whenever these clash with the needs of the system.

And Labour has repeatedly proved itself willing to do this even at the cost of votes.

It destroyed its support in Scotland by lining up with the Tories to oppose independence. Labour right wingers oppose Brexit despite knowing the risk of alienating millions of Labour voters who support it.

The idea of an inclusive “progressive patriotism” that includes Britons of immigrant backgrounds is held up as an alternative to the reactionary nationalism of the racist right.

In reality it fuels it. As well as uniting those that should be divided, nationalism divides those who should be united.


However “Britishness” is defined, it will always exclude someone—in particular the most recent immigrants.

If “Britain” is seen as united by a common interest, they will be the candidates to take the blame when British bosses attack British workers’ living standards.

In practice the figures who have argued for Labour to be more patriotic have also called for more restrictions on immigration.

Any form of nationalism gives encouragement to the racists and undermines the arguments against them. The idea that patriotism can be progressive almost always means the left falling in behind the right.

This reflects the deeper conflict between the interests of the state and the working class.

One tragedy of Labour’s embrace of nationalism is that it traps the Labour left.

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader in 2015, inspiring huge support and humbling the right, this wasn’t by appealing to the national interest. His message was anti-racist, anti-war and anti-austerity.

In Scotland Labour lost support primarily by being the party of cuts, privatisation and war. Its attempt to wrap itself in a Saltire flag as well as a union jack before the last general election did not stem its demise.

All of the major attacks the right have launched about Corbyn—over war in Syria, Trident, nuclear power and staying in the EU—have been about his failure to act in the “national interest”.

On each one of these Corbyn has been pressured to back down. The Labour left accepts the idea that it’s possible—and necessary—to represent workers, bosses, left and right in parliament.

That puts it on the right’s terrain, strengthens the arguments the right uses to hold the left down and undermines its ability to offer an alternative.

The world is bigger than the nation state, and the working class in particular is international. Workers have a common interest in every country, against the capitalist system of nation states that divides them.

Only by breaking with the illusion of “national interest” to realise that international interest can the left’s ideas succeed.

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