“Unsurprisingly, the so-called national interest is closely aligned to the interests of those with a large stake in the economy.”
Richard Price explains how ‘country before party’ rhetoric only serves the 1%
Back in February 2021, a leaked internal strategy presentation called for a new Labour patriotism: “The use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial, etc give voters a sense of authentic values alignment”. The fact that this was aimed at Red Wall voters didn’t stop many in those swing seats finding the new line clunky, patronising, and inauthentic, as well as being a positive turn-off to younger voters.
Undeterred, the Labour right pressed ahead, and Starmer’s speech to last year’s Conference was framed by references to ‘country before party’. It’s a phrase that historically has come up more often in the United States than Britain. When it has been used, it’s traditionally been the language of national governments, of coalition, and of Ramsay MacDonald.
It might seem a question with an obvious answer, but what is this ‘country’ that Starmer refers to? Does it refer to a single geographical unit, (ignoring the history of our strong national and regional identities)? Is it the people who live in this space? Is it its institutions (many of which have been mired in scandal in recent years)? Is it the national economy? Is it a distillation of those ‘shared British values’ that most of us can’t seem to agree on? Or some combination of all these things?
Whatever it is, it is clearly closely related to our old friend ‘the national interest’, neatly defined by academic Shahid H. Raja as “a vague and ambiguous term that carries a meaning per the context in which it is used by the statesmen and policy-makers for justifying the actions of their states”.
Cast your mind back to the Brexit crisis of the summer of 2019, when PLP discipline completely broke down, and any number of Labour MPs were working ‘across the aisle’ with MPs of other parties. Despite many of them fighting for different solutions, almost without exception they claimed to be working in the national interest. These days, of course, having ‘liked’ a solitary tweet from Caroline Lucas or Nicola Sturgeon can get you barred from standing as a Labour candidate.
So who defines what the national interest is? Politicians tend to sidestep the question by talking, more or less sincerely, about ‘an economy that works for everyone’. It’s true that at some points in history – during the long post-war boom and to some extent during the early Blair years – working class living standards rose, even while the rich concentrated greater wealth in their hands, demonstrating that the economy is not a zero sum game.
But since 2010, while real wages, under the impact of austerity and inflation, have fallen by record levels, the number of UK billionaires has grown from 53 to 177, so any talk of an economy that serves both billionaires and people using food banks is for the birds. Unsurprisingly, the so-called national interest is closely aligned to the interests of those with a large stake in the economy.
At what cost – and to whom?
So if the party and the people it represents must forego things and make sacrifices in the higher interests of the country – the ‘tough choices’ we are constantly reminded must be taken – it is obvious who benefits.
The desperate efforts to rebrand Labour as the party of business, while barring Shadow Cabinet members from supporting picket lines, only serve to underline this. The current Leadership has rowed back from an ever-growing list of pledges and commitments, including increasing tax on high earners, nationalising utilities and rail, universal child care, a transformative green new deal, scrapping tuition fees, abolishing Universal Credit, and reviewing UK arms sales.
All have been scrapped or placed in cold storage, and all involve acting against the interests of those whom Labour claims to represent.
According to this logic, a ‘democratic socialist party’ should not enact even vaguely socialist measures during periods of downturn and turbulence, nor should it in periods of upswing for fear it might harm growth.
- Richard Price is a member of the Leyton & Wanstead Constituency Labour Party (CLP).
- This article was originally published in the special 50th anniversary edition of Campaign Briefing, Read the full magazine here.