The Politics of Place and the Greening of Labour

By Michael Jacobs

(This post originally appeared at LabourList on November 12th 2012)

One of the beauties of the ‘One Nation’ theme is that it allows Labour to occupy the field of ‘soft patriotism’: the love of country invoked by Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony at the Olympics.  Not the hard glorification of empire and ethnic superiority used by the right, but the celebration of all that’s good about our society: its history of social change and political rights, its multiculturalism, its literature and arts, scientific achievements and commonly-owned institutions, from the NHS to the BBC.

And its land.  For love of country is, for most people, not just a sentiment about abstract ideas and values.  It’s actually about the place that is Britain.  It’s an identification with the physical, grounded spaces in which we all live our lives.  There’s a familiar national version of this: of England’s green and pleasant land, of Scottish highland ancestry, of the Welsh Valleys and emerald Ireland.  But there’s also a much more local and arguably more visceral patriotism that many people feel: a sense of belonging to the particular places where they live, and the others they love.

For residents of rural Britain, and those who visit it, love of place is easily enough understood. Looking out on nature’s beauty – the fields, woodlands and babbling brooks – it’s not hard to inspire notions of protection and stewardship.  But exactly the same kind of belonging occurs in towns and cities too.  Urban places are different – they can be loved as much for their social community as for their physical character, their buildings, parks and river walks.  But that feeling of familiarity is vital.  Literally so:  as the anthropologists tell us, connection to one’s home territory is a crucial part of human identity.  And above all of what it means to be a citizen.  For places are shared.  From the street we live in to the country we belong to, places are the location of community – of the common life we share with our neighbours.

And that’s why ‘place’ must become political territory for One Nation Labour.  Over the last few years we have come to understand the threat posed by neoliberal economic forces to our most cherished common institutions.  The NHS, the BBC, the police, our public services and welfare system, our arts and culture – these vital parts of our common life do not operate on market principles, and the values which define them will be destroyed if the market is allowed to take root in them.  But this is true of places too.  Look at our ‘clone town’ centres now: ranks of identical shopping chains robbing once distinctive market towns of their essential character, while on their edges sprawling shopping malls erode the countryside beneath their parking lots.

And look too at where that’s not happening – on land protected by the non-market values of the National Trust, another great British common institution.

Historically, Labour understood well that the market could not protect the values of place.  Its historic 1948 Town and Country Planning Act enshrined the principle that the community as a whole must have a democratic say in how even private property can be developed.  It was Labour which created National Parks (and many urban ones), and which under the last government gave universal rights of access to the countryside and coast.  Yet it’s also true that under Blair and Brown we became impatient with local planning, seeing it as an impediment to vital national economic development.

And that warns us: a new politics of place will not be easy.  There are places the next Labour government will not wish to protect and where we will be bitterly opposed for that stance: on the route of the high speed rail line, near new housing and windfarms.

But we should develop such a politics nevertheless.  For the desire to protect and nurture cherished places is a powerful motivation which can damage Labour if we are seen to reject it, and strengthen us if we give it our support.  It is the source, not least, of much community activism.  Labour should be the champion of the myriad ‘little platoons’ of community associations trying to make their localities better places to live – from urban streets and green spaces to market towns and countryside.  Here surely is a vital role for our local councils.  We should be the party of community land trusts, handing local resources to community control.

And it will also connect Labour to an important political constituency, that of the environmental movement.  Love of place lies at the heart of popular environmentalism: the recognition that society is rooted in nature and must be its steward, and that market values must be limited if the world is to be protected.  That feeling is very widely held: there are 3 million members of the National Trust, a million in the RSPB, and just under that number in local wildlife trusts the length and breadth of the land.

Once upon a time love of place might have been thought to be Tory territory.  And indeed it is conservative, in the literal and best sense.  But the free market ideologues who run today’s Conservative Party have abandoned this field, and Labour should occupy it.

Michael Jacobs is Visiting Professor in the School of Public Policy at University College London and was a Special Adviser in the Treasury and No 10 in the last Government

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