As former Labour minister, John Denham, answers my call, I am instantly reminded of the comforting timbre of my mother’s father. His soft Devon lilt sounds like a forgotten England, which seems appropriate, as Denham is the main spokesperson for the newly-launched English Labour Network (ELN).
“We wanted to give a focus to a series of English questions that we think are critical to the future of the Labour Party”, Denham tells me when I ask him what the inspiration was for setting up the ELN. “They are linked, although they’re also separate to some degree. The first is electoral … Labour has to aim to win England for two reasons. One is that, despite the strength in Wales and the fact we’ve recovered in Scotland, we can’t rely on sufficient MPs from those two nations to give us a UK majority. But the second reason is that it will be harder for Labour to implement policies that will be controversial in England if it doesn’t have an English majority, or is a long way behind the Tories. So we have the aim for an English majority.”
In full flow, Denham goes on: “The second (point) is a constitutional and democratic point. The Welsh and Scottish Labour parties have a great deal of autonomy from UK Labour, but there is no place in which England is actually discussed. And I think the history says that one of the reasons that England has remained so centralised … and all of the failures to devolve have failed … is that the whole thing is being governed by the interests of Wales and Scotland, rather than the ideas of England. So I think we need to have a clear place for England within the Union and a clear decision on how we’re going to devolve inside England. And that is now long overdue.”
“The third thing”, Denham tells me, “is the cultural one, which is that Labour lags in support among English-identifying voters. Now, that’s going to be particularly critical. If you look at the seats that we need to win at the next election to form a government and the ones that we have to defend if the Tories get their act together, they are largely seats that are actually pretty evenly balanced between leavers and remainers and more of the older, working-class leaver voters than the places that we won at the election. And so to lag behind amongst those voters is very dangerous. And the reason that identity is important is that people want to be respected for who they are.”
This is where Denham gets passionate and it seems as though this third issue is the one that stresses him the most. “If somebody feels English”, he goes on, “nobody ever acknowledges that they feel English. It’s a clear way of saying that we don’t understand you, or we don’t know where you’re coming from. The irony is that we live in a society where all sorts of multiple identities are possible, but it’s almost as though Englishness is the one that’s not legitimate. If Labour behaves as though there’s something inherently wrong with being English, we’re never going to reach those voters. When we talk about the importance England and Englishness, nobody is suddenly going to vote for us because of this, but it opens the door to discussions about public services or industrial strategy or austerity or spending and all the other things.”
I’m with Denham entirely on this, and I tell him so. He jokingly asks if that’s enough for the article. I tell him it isn’t, and I press on. I ask him how he thinks the ELN will be received by Labour’s divided factions. I tell him that the language he’s using could have come straight of the Blue Labour playbook. Swiftly, Denham replies: “I don’t think this is from any particular faction. It cuts across some of the traditional groups. In many ways, you could make a strong case that people from the centre-right tradition that’s dominated the Labour Party for the last fifteen or twenty years have been amongst the most unsympathetic and insensitive to the impact of migration and were the original people who said working-class voters have got nowhere else to go except Labour … until they went somewhere else.”
“So”, says Denham, “I think you will find people right across the Party who don’t want to engage in these issues, feel uncomfortable about them and who don’t like them. And right across the Party you will find people who see these are essential and important and we have to find more effective ways of involving … not just getting votes from these people … getting them involved in the Labour Party and making them feel part of the Labour movement. And so it’s significant that we’ve got people like Liam Byrne and Sam Tarry.” I tell Denham that Tarry interests me in particular, as he is perhaps one of the most famous members of the Corbyn inner circle not yet in Parliament. He can hardly be accused of being from anything other than the Labour left.
Denham agrees and says it’s very difficult to pigeon-hole the group of people that are involved in this. He mentions Shabana Mahmood, the MP for Birmingham Ladywood, and points out that she is a British Muslim. What these people have all got in common, says Denham, is an understanding that all of these voters are important and need to be respected. We can’t accommodate all of their views, he adds. We can’t support racism or violence, and we don’t have to go along with that. “But we have to respect and engage them”, he tells me.
Now I press on what is a potentially sensitive area – the Labour leadership. I ask Denham if the ELN has engaged the leadership, or vice versa. He tells me there has been no engagement “at that level.” But he’s quick to say that the ELN has been “clear and careful” about building on “some real positives in the Labour manifesto.” And here he’s adamant: “No Labour manifesto in my time has gone as far as this year’s in recognising the political identity of England by saying we should have a Minister for England and create a federal United Kingdom.” Denham goes on: “We want a relationship of equals … at the end of the day, our aim is that Labour wins the next election, so this has to be outward-facing, not an inward-looking group that involves itself in internal elections.”
I’m impressed by Denham’s sure-footedness on this point. He has neatly sidestepped early allegations of factionalism, but perhaps that’s not surprising – he has never been an avowedly factional politician. “It’s not worth writing a blog saying, ‘Labour should'”, Denham tells me. He wants to focus on the hard graft of finding actual policy solutions, not mere positioning. I tell him that Labour Vision often says what Labour “should” do and we’re sorry about this.
Now I ask him a provocative question. Will the ELN damage Labour’s burgeoning recovery in Scotland? “No. No”, Denham tells me firmly. He says Kezia Dugdale, the Leader of Scottish Labour, has struck the right balance on this. She argues that proper federalism means that it’s for the English to decide the destiny of England. “We’re not an English independence group”, Denham insists. “We are all unionists, we all want to keep the Union together and this fits together with the Party’s leadership in Wales in Scotland.”
Finally I ask him: does what the ELN is trying to do cut across efforts to stop our working-class supporters drifting away to the Tories? Is this about class as much as Englisness? “This directly addresses that”, Denham declares. He says Labour cannot put itself in a position of having to choose between young, middle class voters or simply being a working-class party. The only way Labour can win and remain in power is by bringing the two together. “This is about finding common ground”, he asserts. “This is not just about one group of English people … it’s about everyone in England, and winning in all of England … rural, towns and cities.”
At this point, we wrap up the call. Denham thanks me for my interest which, given the number of articles that have been written about the launch of the ELN, he’s clearly not been short of. Labour Vision warmly welcomes this new project. It’s long overdue and hopefully, in the years ahead, it will help end the Tory stranglehold on England.