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By Daniel Shears, Features Editor
Nationalism seems to be exclusively a right-wing phenomenon when it comes to identities in our modern political space. The meteoric rise of nationalistic far-right parties across Europe is testament to this. We witnessed the ascendancy of Norbert Hofer of the Austrian Freedom Party in April of this year, when he came a hair’s breadth away from winning the Presidency in the final round of voting, leaving the centrist establishment quaking in their boots. And it’s not just Austria; whether it’s the National Front in France, Lega Nord in Italy, Party for Freedom in Holland or Jobbik in Hungry, conservatism and nationalism appear to coalesce into an inextricable political identity which is gaining significant traction amongst disillusioned, working class voters – the precise demographic historically associated with the political left.
Even amongst moderate right-wing parties who don’t subscribe so fervently to xenophobic, populist caterwauling, patriotism is still frequently invoked as a seemingly organic element of the conservative ideology. Whenever the left does attempt to elicit patriotism or appeal to nationalistic tendencies within voting populations, it seems reluctant, lackluster and reactionary, as opposed to being rooted in the very spirit of the leftist movement. Stalin’s potent mixing of disastrous central planning and the theory of “socialism-in-one-country” seems to have tainted the idea of left-wing nationalism, which to many reeks of 20th century dictatorial authoritarianism.Flag waving thus seems to be reserved for the political right. By why is it that only free marketers or out-and-out racists are allowed to be proud of their country? Rationally, it makes no sense. Pride in your country isn’t so much a political belief as an instinctive feeling; you can’t map national pride on the traditional political spectrum.
The new, radical, cosmopolitan left seem to have rejected the very concept of the nation state, seeing national sentiment as a useless relic of the past. Anecdotally, I can tell you that pragmatic, socially-democratic centre-left individuals feels very differently. These people love their country, celebrate their country and are not ashamed to display proudly the British flag on their Facebook page.I suspect that political left are scared to embrace nationalism because of what it is most obviously and overtly associated with: xenophobia, intolerance, racism and bigotry.
But I believe that the concept of the nation-state and the idea of being proud of your country and inherently rooted in the left-wing tradition; being a socialist is about believing that the state has a duty to protect those who live within its borders, those who are citizens of its country. Hell, Labour’s greatest achievement is called the National Health Service, not, as far-left Communists would likely prefer, the International Bandage Dispensary. Furthermore, it’s not hypocritical to love your country and also be an internationalist. National identity doesn’t equate to parochialism, myopia, or isolationism, and it doesn’t make you racist or xenophobic. The fact I feel compelled to point this out is very much evidence of the scale and severity of the problem the left faces.
Why is all of this important? Because by appealing to patriotism (NOT pandering to xenophobia and bigotry, or giving into fear), the left stand to gain electorally. The SNP provide an excellent example, whose cocktail of Scottish nationalism and progressive politics helped deliver them to electoral victory in 2015 (and Labour’s parallel electoral oblivion in the country), winning 56 out of 59 seats in the Scottish parliament.
Owen Smith postulated in an interview that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “doesn’t really understand patriotism”, symbolized in his refusal to sing the national anthem. Smith attributes this to Corbyn’s “metropolitan” attitude, which fatally ignores the pride that traditional, working class families and communities have in where they come from. And while defenders of Corbyn will doubtless argue that this is a trivial point, distorted and abused by the vitriolic right-wing press to demonize the current leader of the Labour Party, I would argue it is again symptomatic of a new British political left (what has been referred to as “new-old-Labour”) which is reluctant (at best) or even scared (at worst) to mention anything that might vaguely sound patriotic.
A report by the Fabian Society, written by Lewis Baston, concludes that, while Labour are performing well in “the most modern bits of England”, their neglect of historically safe heartlands is beginning to cost them dearly. While hardline socialism has been well received in leafy London suburbs and urban centres, in crucial Northern and Midland constituencies, such as Nuneaton and Cannock, Labour’s popularity was much lower. In fact, Labour’s performance in the North of England has fallen by 1.8% since 2015, according to Baston’s analysis. The New Statesman’s Helen Lewis recently speculated that this was because “many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour, and don’t feel that Labour is it”.
Given that many working-class voters are jumping ship from Labour to UKIP, I’m inclined to agree. Ambivalence on patriotism and nationalistic sentiment hinders the ability of the left to prosper, and if Labour doesn’t get its act together, I worry it may fade into political insignificance.