By Leon McLaughlin
It comes up in most polls. The Tories mention it at any opportunity. Most of us have heard it ourselves on the doorstep. It has become a cliche. Labour has a patriotism problem. For a long time now, Labour has been seen as reluctant to tackle patriotism. If Labour is to reconnect, it must find its own claim to it.
The question is then how do we achieve this relative volte-face without abandoning our core principles. There are a number of pitfalls that should be avoided. First and foremost, being a patriot does not mean being hawkish internationally. Military intervention should never be Labour’s default position and we should resort to force only when absolutely necessary. Labour should also not let any conversation about patriotism devolve into a race to the bottom on immigration. With violent hate-crime up by 60% between June and September, and the Home Secretary channelling the ghost of Enoch Powell, minority communities need a Labour Party that will stand up for them. Similarly, we shouldn’t let any newfound patriotism weaken Labour’s support for the Union. We must refuse to pander to nationalist sentiment in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
While, there are a few easy solutions which can help push us in the right direction, small things like singing the national anthem and not suggesting that we give away the Falklands, this is not enough. Ultimately, Labour’s best chance of appealing to the public’s sense of patriotism lies with defence policy. Patriotism is a complex and nebulous concept, and whose meaning changes from person to person. We need a central policy area around which we can position our patriotism. UKIP has done it with immigration, Labour must now do it with defence policy.
Specifically, Labour must end speculations and commit to renewing Trident and the 2% standard in defence spending. It is good that this appears to be gradually becoming the case, but speculation is still abound. While, the issue of spending 2% of GDP on defence is largely settled, events at Conference and the latest reshuffle show that, for the leadership at least, there is still a question mark above Trident. Many of us may be instinctive unilateralists, but realistically the cause of disarmament isn’t best served by unilateral action and an air moral superiority. When it comes down to it, aspiring nuclear powers can withstand harsh words from foreign citizens for decades without the slightest ill-effect. If we are to reduce worldwide nuclear weapons numbers, what is needed are bargaining chips which can be leveraged against other nuclear powers. But this is beside the point. Much more than a weapon, Trident is a symbol of the type of country that much of the public wish Britain to be; powerful, active on the world stage, of consequence in international affairs and capable of defending itself if it comes to it. This is a powerful message and by fudging on Trident and defence in general, Labour, whether we realise it or not, gives the impression that we oppose this vision of Britain, and that hands the Tories a stick to beat us with until 2020.
However, as important as defence spending is, more is needed to revitalise Labour’s patriotic credentials. Labour must become the champion of service personnel, both active and retired. The problems that veterans face: mental health issues, unemployment, substance abuse and far too often suicide, are an outrage and represent a terrible failure for both parties that has never been properly addressed. All politicking aside, we have a moral responsibility to act on this issue, with more than just empty rhetoric.
Labour must also set out its own series of measures, not only to reduce rates of suicide, but to ensure the wellbeing of military personnel after the end of their service. This should include a wide-range of up to date treatments, going beyond pharmaceuticals and traditional talking-therapy, to include modern treatments based on neurological observations which treat PTSD as a physical injury. At the same time, Labour should develop programmes that sees the MoD take responsibility for ensuring that departing personnel are able to find well-paid employment, whether than means vocational training, accreditation for skills gained during service or referrals to suitable public sector jobs.
All of this would help, but more than anything the true scale of the problem needs to be acknowledged. Until recently, the MoD did not even record suicide rates among active personnel and still makes no effort to record rates amongst ex-service personnel. In opposition, Labour must demand that the government acts to improve the quality of information, here and now, as a first step in improving early-intervention methods. A progressive sense of patriotism cannot just be about vague notions regarding the strength of the nation, but must also include a profound and meaningful concern for the material and emotional wellbeing of the men and women who serve it.
While patriotism may have become a difficult issue for the Left, it is something we must get to grips with, and we must better our communication in order to convey it effectively to the wider electorate, and right now we are failing to do that. Any attempt to staunch the flow of working-class voters switching to UKIP has to start by acknowledging this fact. And as much as defence policy is still a sore point, it is better to compromise on this, than to end up in the position where we’re printing ‘controls on immigration’ on mugs again and again. If we are to avoid that, this has to be our vision for the country.