By James Seabridge
Just over a year to the day of Labor’s recent defeat in the general election, and the party continues to wrestle how to reverse the pattern of engineering failure and electoral success.
One hotly debated area was the need to embrace patriotism. At the beginning of his tour, Sir Keir Starmer declared that “Labor should not shrink from patriotism”.
A YouGov poll in June 2020 found that the majority of UK citizens are proud to be British. This makes this a solid position on paper for any political party hoping to win at the ballot box.
However, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, it has been difficult for Labor to tackle this issue.
Patriotism was a constant problem for Corbyn. in fact, he never really did. Polls by Lord Ashchroft on the recent general election found that a perceived lack of patriotism was one of the main reasons Labor lost in 2019.
Corbyn has clearly not subscribed to the classic flag of patriotism, but tried to adapt the concept to socialist ideals by tweeting: “Patriotism is about supporting one another and not attacking anyone. It’s about loving your country enough to make it a place where no one is homeless or hungry, held back or left behind.
Corbyn’s perspective on patriotism is no less valid, but that message has simply not been passed on to the electorate.
What contributed, however, were narratives that upheld the idea that Corbyn was unpatriotic; The best-known example is the accusation that he is a terrorist sympathizer, a story that damaged his personal image.
While these claims were questionable to say the least, there were other aspects that went into the narrative of Corbyn as unpatriotic; whether it was his position on military action, refusal to sing the national anthem, or his views on the monarchy.
The recent suspension of Jeremy Corbyn’s parliamentary whip could help reinterpret the party as patriotic, even if that wasn’t the intent behind the decision.
However, further steps need to be taken.
A change that would be relatively easy to implement would be to use the Union flag. Sir Keir has already started incorporating the flag into Labor messaging. The combination of the flag and its slogan “A New Leadership” is a not-so-subtle way of proving that Labor can be patriots.
This small change could play an important role in redefining the narrative about patriotism. The Conservatives regularly use the Union flag in their images. She is often found in connection with the party’s press releases and is present at their conferences. These little steps are important in maintaining a party image.
A much more difficult task for Sir Keir and Labor to face is dealing with some of the most controversial aspects of British history.
Winston Churchill is both a revered and highly controversial figure. According to a YouGov poll where only 11 percent of respondents had a negative opinion of him, the majority of the country rated it positively.
Attacking some of the most controversial aspects of Winston Churchill’s beliefs, valid as they may be, will revive accusations that Labor was the unpatriotic party of the Corbyn era.
Conversely, if they take a more nationalist approach, they risk alienating the BAME community on which Labor relies. There is a fine line between falling into one of the camps and both of them have major perception problems. The workforce has to master this tightrope walk professionally.
Most important, however, is the need for Labor to redefine the view of patriotism in Britain. If flag-waving and jingoistic language continue to dominate patriotism, Labor has already lost.
You cannot compete with the Conservatives or the party Nigel Farage will lead in the months ahead under these conditions. Corbyn’s approach to defining patriotism, support for the weakest that leaves no one behind, is closer to the kind of rhetoric Sir Keir’s work must use.
Part of this reformulation needs to include the national institutions that UK citizens care about. The prime example of this is the support and funding of the NHS.
Healthcare is already a source of enormous national pride, and so it should be perfectly possible in the eyes of the public to make that connection.
This already seems to be a subject of discussion in Labor, with Baroness Chakrabarti arguing: “Contemporary patriotism should be about loyalty to nursing and health workers in blue who are sent to modern mines, mills and trenches without adequate testing or protection. “
Sir Keir must continue to forge Labor’s image as a patriotic party and begin to control the narrative of patriotism.
Labor doesn’t have to become the party of hardcore patriots who wave the flags, but it does have to be a party that understands the value of patriotism and, most importantly, understands the need to get back to power.
James Seabridge is a labor activist who writes frequently about the party’s future direction. You can follow him on Twitter here.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the website or its owners.