City State Devolution not more flag waving nationalism
When Boris Johnson expelled 21 MPs in September 2019 and then, a few months later, drove a “Get Brexit Done” bulldozer through the northern post industrial Red Wall, the Tory party’s position as the party of English nationalism was confirmed.
Just 13 months later, after a year of forensic backpedalling on his own ten pledges and the Labour Party’s previously agreed policy positions, Keir Starmer has delivered his strategy for defeating Johnson’s English nationalism – with British nationalism.
A leaked Labour Party document promotes “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly” [The Guardian, 03/02/2021]. As if to emphasise the point, Starmer has taken to addressing the nation both flanked by and, bizarrely, apparently dressed as a Union Jack.
Comically, and entirely within the spirit of this juvenile game, Johnson has literally doubled down and proves his patriotic credentials by displaying two Union Jacks!
That the UK’s mainstream centre left party has decided to take on the right wing, not by confronting their narrative of jingoistic English exceptionalism, but by trying “out-nationalist” them is worrying. However, it is certainly not without precedent.
“Hostile environment” is a term that is largely attributed to Theresa May’s stint as Home Secretary, May telling the Telegraph ( 25/05/2012) “We’re going to give illegal migrants a really hostile reception”. These words in May 2012 became synonymous with racist immigration policy and the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016.
However, May’s anti-immigrant rhetoric could have been taken straight from the mouth of a Labour immigration minister. Liam Byrne, speaking five years before Theresa May, said: “We are trying to create a much more hostile environment in this country if you are here illegally” [The Guardian, 16/05/2007]
Perhaps more disturbing was the case of Phil Woolas, the disgraced former Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth. Following his re-election to Parliament in 2010, Woolas was accused of inflaming racial tensions during the course of his election campaign and, in particular, of falsely linking his Liberal Democrat opponent (Emily Watkins) to Islamist extremists.
A petition was filed by Watkins under the Representation of the People Act and, following a judicial review of the original court decision, Woolas was removed from his seat. The Guardian (05/11/2010) reported:
The specially convened election court upheld those arguments after it saw confidential emails between Woolas’s team, which included the line: “If we don’t get the white folk angry he [Woolas]’s gone.”
The court ruled that Woolas’s claim, in mocked-up newspapers, that Watkins had “wooed” Islamic extremists and failed to condemn radical groups attacks, was deliberately and knowingly misleading.
In spite of the court’s findings against him, the New Labour establishment actually rallied around Woolas:
“Notwithstanding the decisions of the courts, a groundswell of political pressure, which seeks to legitimise Woolas and his tactics, appears to have built up some momentum. In order to meet his legal fees he reportedly received over £30,000 from well-wishers including Gordon Brown, Cherie Blair, members of the Labour Party, and constituents in Oldham”
[Institute of Race Relations (16/12/2010) https://irr.org.uk/article/woolas-hoist-by-his-own-petard/]
In the build up to the 2015 General Election, Labour once again responded to right wing noises, this time from UKIP, with the launch of their infamous “immigration mugs”. Diane Abbot responded by stating “This shameful mug is an embarrassment. But the real problem is that immigration controls are one of our five pledges at all.” [The Guardian, 29/03/2015].
Ed Balls, then Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, was not so reticent, enthusing “It’s a pledge from us, it’s on the mug and I’m hoping after the general election I can do a toast in that mug as we get on and change Britain for the better.” [Channel 4 News, 31/03/2015]
The most notorious rightward drift associated with the Labour party was that of Oswald Mosley. A Labour MP from 1926-31, Mosley served as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster under Ramsey McDonald’s premiership. Increasingly looking to the far right, after failing to be elected to parliament as a candidate of the New Party at the 1931 election, Mosley formed the British Union of Fascists in 1932.
Of course, in 1937, Mosley was ran out of Liverpool and woke up the following morning with a sore head.
With 90 years of history to look back upon, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when elements of the political class respond to crises that prompt the emergence of the far right with an appeal to the very sentiments that underpin far right politics. However, it is incumbent upon socialists not to merely criticise, but to provide alternatives.
From the International Brigades to Cable Street to Black Lives Matter, it is the working class that always stands up to an insurgent right wing. However, there has undoubtedly been an increasing right wing presence in what were once bastions of working-class Labourism.
The former industrial towns of the north, economically devastated and politically neglected, have provided an unlikely base for ultra-posh, faux anti-establishment, disaster capitalists like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. They have also provided recruits for Tommy Robinson and his so-called “football lad” street movement.
Trying, as Starmer is, to appropriate the language and symbolism of the right wing is not, in any way, a viable route to defeating the right. Beacon argues for a radical programme of City State devolution to cut off the fuel to the fire of the ethno nationalism, through rejuvenating democracy and renewing our local economies.
We hope and believe that the Liverpool City Region can blaze a trail and ignite a movement to nullify the emboldened right wing, take power from the Old Etonians and build viable City States in our regions. If Hamburg, with a population of 1.74m, can organise its own Parliament, Districts and Constitutional Court, then surely the Liverpool City Region (population, depending upon definition, of between 1.5m and 2.3m) and other regions of England can do likewise.
Beacon proposes a democratic transformation, with people and communities front and centre. Elected members at every tier, from local councillors to City State assembly members to MPs, would be held directly to account through Neighbourhood Committees and community powers of scrutiny and recall.
Bringing real democratic power to the neighbourhood level would empower the politically neglected and begin to overcome the alienation that feeds right wing politics.
A viable City State would also require new City State institutions.
A Regional Investment Bank would enable investment in economically transformative measures, like a Green Deal and developing a 21st century sustainable transport infrastructure. A Land Commission could ensure that land is held for community wealth building and meeting social housing need, not sold off for extractive development and speculative land banking.
Investment in building an economy that serves our needs over the needs of the hedge funds, speculators and outright sharks in the extractive economy would help create good jobs and begin to address the economic devastation that leaves us in a position of permanent crisis. A position that four decades of neo liberalism has worsened and cannot even begin to remedy.
Those considering themselves to be of the left should be fighting for progressive, effective devolved regional government. Putting the power to affect real change to daily lives into the hands of ordinary people is our counter to the right wing.
Pandering to the philosophies and politics of a rightward drifting status quo is not some clever ruse to achieve power for the left. As the seamless transition of “hostile environment” from New Labour lexicon to Tory immigration policy shows, such cowardice in the face of a political battle merely legitimises the rightwing discourse.
Socialists must reject Labour’s drive towards a flag waving populism. Radical City State devolution will help reverse the political and economic factors that the right wing thrives upon. It is a cause that will reconnect socialists in the working class heartlands with their 21st century communities.
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