Labour after Glasgow by-election

This article was published in the Sunday Telegraph

For Labour, the Scottish years are over
27 July 2008

After Glasgow, Labour has to do more than debate its leadership and see off excited calls by union leaders for challenges to Gordon Brown. Instead the party has to confront an existential problem of its own making: the question of England.
Voters are punishing political leaders across the globe as the triple tsunami of rising costs of fuel, food and credit destroy purchasing power. For Britain's Ryanair and Easyjet voters - there are plenty in Glasgow East, despite its poverty - the anger about seeing ends no longer meeting is taken out in the safety of a by-election polling booth.
But Labour has to understand the deeper currents of political history far removed from the leadership buzz, as ministers and activists meet in Warwick today. If Tony Blair answered the Irish question, the people of Scotland and the voters of Glasgow East have answered the Scottish question: namely, that rule by Westminster and Whitehall is no longer acceptable.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Labour and the Lib-Dems made the fatal mistake of thinking the Scots hated only the Tories. They did and still do, but they hate rule by England even more. It matters little if a Scottish PM and a host of Scottish ministers are in charge. Gordon Brown represents London rule and that writ no longer runs in Scotland.
Scotland is destined to be the Quebec or the Catalonia of the United Kingdom. One monarch, one army, one health service, one language, but never again a unitary state, a single parliament, one law or even one flag, as the saltire now flies in place of the union flag.
A different union is being invented. I believe that, like the Quebecois and the Catalans, the Scots will not vote to break up the UK but live within it on their terms. Scots will still star in British politics in the manner of Pierre Trudeau or Jean Chretien, able Quebecois who were two of the best prime ministers Canada has ever had.
But the Glasgow East by-election now demands that Labour answers the English question. How does Labour, both as a government and as a political party, shape a politics that talks to and for the people of England?
It is a question that David Cameron, whose party's vote has collapsed in Scotland, tried to answer with Ken Clarke's breezy proposals to divide MPs into two classes: Scots and the rest. But since I, as a Yorkshire MP, can vote on the London Crossrail project and the future of Heathrow - which are further from my constituency than Scotland - and Tories can vote on investment in South Yorkshire or Liverpool where they have no representation, Clarke's ideas make no sense in a unitary parliamentary system of law-making.
An alternative would be to adopt American, Australian or Canadian systems of moving law-making and tax-raising closer to the people of England. Today there is little appetite for a make-over of our centralised state system that parties criticise in opposition but love to use when in power. In the end, however, some form of devolution within England will come.
If David Cameron's problem is that nearly all his senior shadow ministers and aides come from a narrow elite of wealth with no worries about mortgages, pensions or education costs, Labour has been dominated by Scots since it transformed itself from protest to power in the 1990s.
As a recently elected MP in the run-up to the 1997 election I was in awe at how Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar, George Robertson, John Reid, Helen Liddell, Alistair Darling as well as the Edinburgh-educated Tony Blair and bagpipe-playing Alastair Campbell worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week to make Labour fit for purpose and power.
The sheer talent of this remarkable political generation obscured the extent to which Labour's English political leadership was vitiated. Today, there are no cabinet ministers born and bred in the great English cities, representing them in parliament, and making the case for Labour back home in Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol, Liverpool and Newcastle.
Labour's elite is now a next generation of Scottish protégés or former aides to Blair and Brown, brilliant but not rooted in the patchwork of English geographies and traditions. Between the Glasgow-Edinburgh axis and the dinner parties of Islington lies a political space - England - with which Labour now has to grapple.
How to do this? First, by understanding English culture, which from Shakespeare to Pope to Brontë to Orwell has been about a deeply felt sense of language and history. Citing Kennedy and Gertrude Himmelfarb, or worshipping a sex pest like Bill Clinton, sits ill with this English culture. Labour needs to ignore transatlantic, cross-Channel or multicultural rhetoric and revert to the great words and vision of the makers of the English language.
Second, by understanding English capitalism, which is aggressively accumulationist, individualist and internationalist. In England today, the state is too big and the individual too small. Fair taxes are one thing, but when county council bosses earn more than a prime minister and BBC bosses milk taxpayers for pay hikes worthy of pharaohs, the English gorge rises. Unions in England could help Labour by exposing waste and useless bureaucracy.
Third, by understanding that a key word in English is indeed "fair". The English want a fair deal. The people who glue England together get up early, work hard as individuals, get their children off to school where they expect discipline - and not criticism if they opt for a religious school. They want to see more uniformed police out and about, fewer sneaky speed cameras and more chances for their children to enjoy their time off and not congregate on the streets.
When Labour was successful, as in 1945, in 1966, and in 1997, it was as a party of England as well as Britain. The message from Glasgow East is not just about Gordon Brown, as no political leader can alter the terms of trade in world economics. But it is a wake-up call to Labour that relying on Scottish votes is no longer enough. Labour needs a politics for England before it is too late.