Over a year after the party’s historic election defeat, it is fair to say that the Labour Party’s new leadership is still in the process of carving out a coherent identity. Whilst terms such as ‘professionalism’, ‘integrity’, and ‘competence’ are banded around, a sense of emptiness still haunts Keir Starmer’s office. One fears that if asked, “who are we?”, he may not be able to provide a convincing answer.
A recently leaked internal strategy presentation may indicate the direction of travel in this regard. Unfortunately, it is far from what many members, especially on the Left of the Party, had hoped for. The central suggestions of the presentation, incorporating research from digital marketing agency ‘Republic’, were that Labour should embrace “the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly” in the hopes that the party will be able to rebrand itself as patriotic, an association supposedly eroded by the Corbyn era. Such a move, it is hoped, will help Labour re-claim seats lost in the so-called ‘red wall’ in the 2019 election.
Many in the party, activists in particular, are greatly concerned by this suggestion, fearing that playing to themes of country and military gives legitimacy to the prejudices of the far-right. In his comment piece for The Guardian, Norwich South MP, Clive Lewis, expressed unease at this suggested strategy, fearing that embracing such rhetoric would be particularly excluding to BAME Britons, who are so often left out of the national story.
These colliding visions evoke a question for the Labour Party. Is a progressive patriotism possible? Can a discourse be forged which marries together a pride in the nation, and the values of inclusivity and diversity that many in the party hold? The short answer to this question, I claim, is yes. Yet to understand why this is the case, one must take a step back and examine the phenomena of political discourse as a whole.
Within discourse theory, often discussed is the notion of an ‘empty signifier’. This is a symbol, linguistic or otherwise, which does not have a corresponding object of signification and is therefore open to being imbued with any content. For example, the signifier ‘freedom’. To some to be ‘free’ is to have no outside interference in one’s life, from the government or anyone else. To others, to be free is to be enabled to live the life one wishes to lead, and therefore interference, in the form of assistance, is required.
The suggested discourse from the leaked strategy presentation is full of such ‘empty signifiers’. To be ‘patriotic’ could well mean to be nativist and xenophobic, but it could just as easily mean providing a strong social safety net for everyone in the country. The union flag could represent a jingoist deification of the British empire, but it could also represent, as has been the case in many Latin American leftist struggles, an inclusive banner under which all citizens of any background can identify with. The use of veterans may equally be an appeal to imperial nostalgia, or the Labour Party could instead highlight the epidemic of homeless ex-service personnel with this symbol.
The potential for ‘progressive patriotism’ is not just a theoretical one, however, with left-wing parties in Europe providing the British left with examples of how to be proud of one’s nation in an inclusive way, whilst challenging the far-right’s monopoly on patriotism. Spanish parliamentarian Íñigo Errejón of the eco-socialist party Más País, recently exposed the emptiness of the self-proclaimed patriotism of the far-right party, Vox. He charged the party of having no interest in national sovereignty when it comes to the massive control of the Spanish economy by American multi-national corporations, instead arguing Vox only claim to be patriots when it offers an excuse to demonise migrants. Errejón’s formulation of progressive patriotism has long been a cornerstone of his politics, as a key constructor of his former party, Podemos, patriotism centralised a vision of an inclusive Spain with “solid institutions and democratic safeguards.”
Once Labour understands the fact that these symbols of patriotism are empty until they are filled with meaning through discourse, the possibility of constructing a progressive patriotism is unquestionably present. No doubt such a construction will require a struggle over the ‘common sense’ understanding of what it means to be patriotic: the reactionary understanding of the word has been dominant for some time. With the so-called “culture war’s” slowly creeping towards their climax, many are entrenched in their understanding of the word already. However, with those in the ‘red-wall’ and elsewhere who understand patriotism to be the love of one’s country, but whose conception does not extend much further, Labour has the possibility to fill this signifier with progressive content. This may be the only strategy which allows for Labour to be perceived as a patriotic party, without conceding its inclusive principles.
Howard, R. (2010) ‘Language, Signs, and the Performance of Power: The Discursive Struggle over Decolonization in the Bolivia of Evo Morales’ Latin American Perspectives, 37 (3): 176-194
Errejón, I. & Mouffe, C. (2016) Podemos: In the Name of the People, London: Lawrence & Wishart. p.68