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Redefining the Flag: Why Britain’s Labour party must embrace patriotism

As Britain’s Labour Party attempts to reassemble an electoral coalition following its devastating 2019 defeat to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, internal debate has arisen over new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s use of the British flag. With Labour’s traditional stronghold in the north of England defecting to vote in favor of Brexit in 2016 and the Conservatives in 2019, the largely socialist Labour Party is setting out to win back these crucial seats before the next general election. According to a leaked internal report, Starmer intends to embrace patriotism in order to court these former Labour voters.

This decision has exposed deep internal divisions. More left-wing members of the Labour Party view Starmer’s use of the flag as dangerous pandering to right-wing nationalism. Incorporating the flag into Labour’s messaging is just one element of Starmer’s strategy. However, the strongly negative reaction from Labour’s left illustrates a common problem for center-left parties around the world: Namely, how to appeal to a younger, metropolitan membership that views patriotism as a harmful display of right-wing nationalism, while also recovering a de-industrialized working-class constituency that embraces a love of country. To unify these groups, Labour must work to build its own form of patriotism, founded on pride in an inclusive country. If Labour neglects this dilemma, it will lose out electorally and more dangerous forces will define the spaces that Labour vacates.

Polls conducted around the 2019 general election highlighted a lack of patriotism as a key reason behind Labour’s electoral defeat, demonstrating the necessity for leadership to publicly embrace patriotic ideals. Evidence repeatedly illustrates the wide gap between the public and Labour on this issue. Polling by YouGov showed 61 percent of people identified as “fairly patriotic” or “very patriotic,” whereas only 35 percent thought of Labour as such. While many fear that Labour risks submitting to right-wing nationalism by attempting to move closer to public opinion on this issue, this view ignores a century-old tradition within Labour of using patriotism as a unifier. This strategy was embraced by two of Labour’s stand-out leaders: Clement Attlee and Tony Blair, both of whom harnessed patriotism as a positive force during their tenures as prime minister.

While Britain was still dealing with the fallout of the Second World War, Clement Attlee was able to guide Labour to a surprise win in the 1945 election, triumphing over the now-idolized Winston Churchill. The consequences of this win were immense and define the United Kingdom to this day: Attlee brought about the National Health Service, the contemporary welfare state, widespread nationalization, and huge house-building programs. Beyond these policy changes, Attlee himself was a distinctly British and patriotic figure. When war first broke out, he put aside party differences and joined the wartime coalition government, serving Churchill loyally. Attlee framed his desires for a planned economy in the words of William Blake’s quintessentially English verse, hoping to build “Jerusalem / In England’s green and pleasant land.” Attlee implemented socialist-style policy changes in Britain because he believed that patriotism necessitated universal investment.

Fifty years later, a new resurgence of patriotism would come to dominate Britain: Cool Britannia. During this era, the Spice Girls performed in Union Jack dresses, Oasis sang Wonderwall wrapped in the flag, and Alexander McQueen designed pieces inspired by the British symbol. Into this renewal of British pride stepped Tony Blair, who embodied this youthful optimism. As he walked into 10 Downing Street after his landslide victory in 1997, Blair was greeted by crowds waving British flags. He formed a coalition he called New Labour, boosted into power by a generation tired of nearly two decades of Conservative rule and eager to redefine a nation they could take pride in. In 2021, the rose-tinted nostalgia for the 1990s must be avoided in light of the myriad health and economic crises that Covid-19 has inflicted upon the United Kingdom. If Blair and Cool Britannia can teach us one key lesson, it is that patriotism and pride in the flag do not have to be synonymous with regressive right-wing politics. The flag did—and still can—embody pride in an optimistic, forward-looking country.

While giving up on over half the population who identify as “fairly” or “very patriotic” may allow Labour to stay comfortably in their own ideological bubble, it would condemn them to eternal opposition. Not only that, but if this 61 percent of the population are shunned by Labour, this demographic’s only home will become right-wing parties who embrace a darker, more isolationist form of patriotism. Labour has to fight against this instinct; they must embrace the flag, own it, and incorporate it within a message of positivity and inclusivity. This is a path well-trodden for Labour, and one it must walk again.