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John Major once waxed lyrical about Britain as a ‘country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and … old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.’

While the then prime minister’s sentimentality was roundly ridiculed, wanting to turn the clock back to an idealised past is par for the course for conservatives. What, though, are we to make of ostensibly progressive voices such as Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford clinging on to a romanticised Olde England, albeit a grittier one of community-owned ports and ancient fish markets? ‘Labour’s future in England is conservative’, they declare. Really?

On one thing, the need for financial reform, Cruddas and Rutherford are right. As I argue in Aftershock: Reshaping the World Economy After the Crisis, our bloated banks need to be broken up. Britain’s financial sector is a government-subsidised racket that makes monopoly profits in good times, gets bailed out in bad, crowds out productive industries, destabilises our economy and subverts our politics. Just because the government taxes away some of those monopoly returns doesn’t mean that the UK benefits from being fleeced by the financial sector.

Unfortunately, the rest of Cruddas’s and Rutherford’s often incoherent argument is wrongheaded. They defame New Labour by lumping it together with Enoch Powell, ‘the prophet of the Thatcher revolution’, while also accusing it of destroying the party’s English working-class roots by abandoning the country to immigration and multiculturalism – the very things Powell hated. So were New Labour and Enoch Powell intellectual soulmates or mortal enemies? They can’t be both. And when the two authors call for Labour to ‘confront and turn the page on what Powell started’, their prescription sounds a lot like watered down Powellism: Labour, they argue, should ‘fight for an England which belongs to the English just as they belong to the land’. Nick Griffin would no doubt agree.

Their analysis of last year’s election defeat is also confused. The notion that Labour lost because it was New Labour is bizarre. Tony Blair assembled a broad coalition of voters that delivered three election victories. While the Iraq war did a lot of damage in 2005, New Labour still won. What changed between 2005 and 2010? Gordon Brown proved to be a disastrous prime minister. The man who boasted that he had abolished boom and bust presided over the worst recession since the 1930s – a global crisis, yes, but one which this champion of the lightly regulated City did nothing to prevent. And while people weren’t convinced by Cameron’s Conservatives, they were mightily sick of 13 long years of Labour rule.

Yes, of course Labour needs to reconnect with those white working-class voters who feel it does not address their concerns about housing, jobs and public services. Labour’s biggest failure in office was housing: cheering on the property bubble while not building enough social housing. Affordable housing should be at the centre of the next manifesto: a tax on land values, for instance, would encourage the private sector to redevelop brownfield sites and help pay for a new generation of affordable homes. Labour can improve on its good record on jobs with a Danish-style commitment to lifelong learning and employability, combined with a generous but tough welfare system that provides a hand-up rather than a hand-out. Increased investment in transport – another area where Labour failed to deliver – would help spread growth and opportunity. Last but not least, a genuine commitment to good education for everyone, especially the poorest – not a piffling pupil premium carved out of a shrinking education budget – is essential. We can learn from Finland, whose schools are rated the best in the world. All this could help break the vicious cycle of deprivation that is scandalous in a rich country like ours, while also stimulating growth.

It would be a terrible mistake, though, to wrongly blame our economic and social problems on Britain’s openness to the rest of the world. Trade with China, foreign investment and Polish workers all boost growth and create jobs. Now, more than ever, if we are to break out of our unhealthy reliance on debt-fuelled consumption, housing and finance, our future prosperity depends on exporting to China, investment from India, educating foreign students and a diverse workforce that generates new ideas and businesses. And an open economy also needs to be flexible – otherwise we could end up like Spain, with a 20 per cent unemployment rate and 40 per cent of young people out of work. There is nothing progressive about a rigid labour market that ossifies the economy and excludes outsiders.

In any case, Labour cannot win again solely by appealing to a dwindling band of white working-class English voters. It also needs to win back middle-class voters, those of immigrant descent, and Scottish and Welsh voters for whom talk of ‘forever England’ holds little appeal. Labour needs to be about tomorrow’s Britain – which, like today’s, will be wonderfully diverse.

In our age of easyJet, Facebook, curry and kebabs, American TV shows and foreign news, Greenpeace and other global campaigns, national boundaries are blurring, while people within Britain are also freer to express their differences since the liberating 1960s. Is that such a bad thing?

While Cruddas and Rutherford fret about ‘what in our differences do we hold in common?’, the answer is simple: we live in the same country, vote in the same elections, accept the rule of the majority while protecting the rights of minorities, use the NHS, watch the BBC, speak English, and share aspirations for a richer, fairer and more secure future.

Our diversity too can unite us. Since modern Britain is inescapably diverse, any definition of shared identity that fails to recognise this inevitably excludes some members of society and thus divides it. Londoners treasure the city’s diversity as a key part of its identity. We all celebrate diversity in national football teams – is it such a stretch to apply this more widely? Our diversity ought to be a source of strength, not of weakness, a reason to belong not an excuse to exclude. We should embrace it rather than seek to deny it.

Posted 05 Feb 2011 in Published articles

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