I WAS pretty sure Labour had lost the last general election after watching the first debate. It was hearing Jeremy Corbyn insist that he didn't have a view on Brexit – the most important single issue facing the UK since the Second World War. The Labour leader said he didn't know, wouldn't say, staying neutral, holding the ring etc...while still calling for another referendum.

There were many reasons why Labour went down to its worst election result since 1935 a years ago this week. Anti-semitism clearly was an issue, though a relatively marginal one. Labour's equalities spokeswoman, Dawn Butler's view that “babies aren't born with a sex” didn't help. Nor was it Labour's ambitious socialist policies that lost it support in the red wall seats of Sedgefield, Bolsover, Workington; it was its approach to the national question, the English one.

What did for Labour, says 'Blue Labour' trades unionist Paul Embery in his book Despised: Why the Left Loathes the Working Class, was its refusal to accept the result of the 2016 Brexit vote. This he says was “a genuine democratic revolt by the English working class”. Labour became identified with the “metropolitan liberal view” of Brexit voters as “narrow nationalists”, “nativists” and even “bigots”. Emily Thornberry's Tweeted image of “white van man” with his house draped in Cross of St George flags.

“The left”, says Embery, a socialist who grew up in Dagenham, “have been so blinded by their prejudice against even the mildest forms of nationalism that they have been hobbled in their attacks on neoliberalism”. Most of Labour's socialist policies, like nationalisation, taxation, borrowing, public spending, green investment, were rather popular. So popular indeed that the Tories seem to be implementing a lot of them.

Now of course it wasn't only working class people who voted for Brexit – most of the southern Tory middle classes did too. Here, a lot of working class voters support the SNP which is militantly anti-Brexit. Labour's dilemma is that it has become unpopular in Scotland and England for apparently contradictory reasons. But there is a unifying thread here and it is the party's attitude to the nation, to patriotism and identity.

Scottish Labour, which has been in an even worse state this year than its UK counterpart, also lost because of its aversion to nationalism, albeit its Scottish version. Working class voters who had been alienated from the democratic process for years turned out in large numbers in 2014 to vote Yes in the independence referendum. Given the chance to vote for change – to vote for their own country, their own people – they grasped it with both hands.

Labour had for years tried to portray the Scottish National Party as “narrow nationalists”, “nativists” and even “bigots”. Labour politicians like Alistair Darling, leader of the unionist Better Together campaign, regarded nationalism as a right-wing “blood and soil” creed akin to racism.

Unfortunately, for Labour, many working class voters didn't. Scots don't share the left's instinctive aversion to patriotism and symbols of national pride. For them, the nation is their community, their people, their solidarity. It is also a bulwark against the anonymous forces of international capitalism threatening their jobs and way of life.

After the 2014 referendum, support for the SNP didn't falter – it exploded, as support for independence became a kind of national craze. In the tsunami election of 2015, Labour were destroyed as the SNP took all but three Scottish seats. Suddenly, even left-wing people in Scotland were talking the language of nationalism, of putting Scotland first. Cutting adrift from the UK union even as they were arguing to remain in the European Union.

Scottish nationalists hate to hear comparisons between Brexit and independence. Nicola Sturgeon believes that Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are right-wing, populist rabble-rousers. She has wrestled with her own aversion to nationalism, even as the leader of a nationalist party. In 2017, she told the Edinburgh Book Festival that she would prefer not to have “national” in the party's name. In recent years she has shunned the mostly working class-supported independence marches while attending demonstrations in favour of causes like LGBT and Remain.

But it was Alex Salmond's genius back in the 1990s to splice together Scottish nationalism with left-wing internationalism. He reversed the SNP's opposition to the European Union, expunged anglophobia and made it firmly a party of the left, supporting multiculturalism and opposing Trident and foreign wars. This allowed Scots to celebrate their national identity because that very identity now encompassed non-nativist values, like support for greater immigration.

SNP leaders fool themselves if they think Scottish voters are supporting them because of transgender reform or love of the European Union. Nicola Sturgeon's success is built on the very nationalism she says is “hugely problematic”. It is why 74% of Scots approve her handling of the Covid pandemic, despite Scotland's record being little better than England's. Scottish people are saying increasingly that they trust their “own” government in Edinburgh to look after them.

There is no sign of Labour freeing itself from this nationalist double bind. Internal surveys suggest that the removal of Jeremy Corbyn is not winning back many supporters in the north of England. This may be because Sir Keir Starmer, an Islington lawyer, is a fully paid up member of the metropolitan liberal Remain faction, and a leading anti-Brexiteer

Meanwhile in Scotland the failing leadership of Richard Leonard suffered another blow this week with the departure of the general secretary, Michael Sharpe, to spend more time with his family. Mr Sharpe had been a key figure in heading off a leadership challenge to Mr Leonard earlier this year. It bodes ill for Labour's chances in the May Scottish parliament elections.

The apparent decision to roll out the former Labour leader Gordon Brown, to offer his latest reconfiguration of federalism, is another measure of the problem. Brown is a formidable politician, but he is of another age – the age of Labour unionism. The very word nationalism sticks in his craw. The SNP has cornered the market on national identity and Scottishness, leaving Labour the party of nowhere.

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