Michael Kenny argues that progressive politicians have been particularly slow to respond to the shifting tides of popular sentiment across the UK that have seen increasing attachment to and identification with the nations, including England. While SNP dominance in Scotland may make a defence of the union itself more difficult for Labour, it is time, he says, to recognise that the union's future – and the party's own electoral prospects – may be harmed by what's happening in England too.

England has come to matter to Labour in a number of different ways. As the reality of its parlous electoral position penetrates the debates associated with Jeremy Corbyn’s ideological insurrection, the party is going to have to think much more deeply about where it stands on the various English questions that have floated to the surface of British politics.

In purely electoral terms, as Lewis Baston shows, there is a key imperative to improve its position in England, starting in the forthcoming local elections, in order to build towards a better performance in 2020. The loss of its Scottish heartland for the foreseeable future, the Conservatives’ strong performance in Wales in the general election of May 2010, and the impact of the forthcoming boundaries review, mean that Labour’s performance in different parts of England will determine its prospects of regaining power at the UK level.

But the electoral picture is only one of several interrelated respects in which England and the shifting territorial sentiments of its people now matter to Labour. While issues of foreign policy and security have gripped its attention since May, there is a good chance that its current leader’s prospects, and the fate of the party in the coming decade, will be more affected by some of the questions and conflicts about territory, nation and place that are in play across the UK. Given that the predominant reflex within the party is to dismiss such issues as either irrelevant or as distractions from ‘bread-and-butter’ questions about redistribution, inequality and economic growth, this suggests that it faces a considerable, perhaps existential, challenge. A similar conclusion arises from a recent essay published by Professor Vernon Bogdanor. We have, he maintains, entered an era when questions about who we are, what values bind us together, and who belongs to the communities we value have become much more important to most people. And yet, for the most part, progressive politicians cling to the belief that the normal rules apply, and that it is the economy and the health service, rather than immigration and culture, that lie at the heart of politics. But questions of recognition and identity, as well as distribution and opportunity, are key themes in our political life.

England, then, should matter to Labour because it has come to matter to many of the nation’s inhabitants. This diffuse and complex trend has not simply been conjured by the Conservatives in the wake of the Scottish referendum: it has taken shape over some considerable time and has developed for a combination of different reasons. Albion has become a much richer and more meaningful ‘imagined community’ for a majority of the English. And this undoubtedly represents a fundamental challenge to a political left, which tends to see Englishness either as an irretrievably insular kind of nationalism, or as something that is essentially indefinable and therefore meaningless. In holding to these twin beliefs, Labour is increasingly at odds with a growing proportion of the English electorate.

Certainly, a sense of Englishness is by no means the only territorial attachment that has come to matter to people in recent years. It is not experienced by most people as separate from – or as a rival to – a feeling for their own area or town. Indeed, it is through experience of specific places that a sense of nationhood is often learned and shaped. And this means, of course, that there are many different regionally rooted ways of being and feeling English. A recent series of annual surveys showed that a sense of Englishness had grown at a roughly similar rate in all regions of England – from Durham to Devon, Cheltenham to Clacton.

And yet the deep suspicion of patriotic sentiments, and the accompanying refusal to give up on the belief that Britishness is the only civic and truly multicultural form of nationhood in the UK, has left progressive politicians awash in the tides of change on both sides of Hadrian’s wall. In policy terms, Labour’s ingrained but weakly expressed unionism means that it has drifted, over the last few years, into the position of being the unwitting defender of the creaking structures of the British state, rather than the champion of a remodelled, more democratic and rebalanced UK. Having so little to say on the questions of self-government, devolution and political community has left the party increasingly vulnerable to those political forces – Ukip in England and the SNP in Scotland – that do harness and engage these currents of national sentiment.

The preference of many on the left is to assert northern regionalism, or London metropolitanism, as morally superior alternatives to Tory Englishness. But, comforting as this may feel, such an approach locks the party into particular cultural idioms, and reinforces the perception that it speaks only to certain parts of England. The subnational focus that prevailed during the Blair and Brown years offers diminishing returns at a moment when the party needs to develop alliances and make connections across the dividing lines of class, geography and ethnicity. Important as the preservation of the UK is to the progressive cause, propounding a ‘post-national’ Britishness is akin to flogging a dying horse, as more and more of the citizens who live within it find more meaningful forms of attachment and affiliation at more personal scales.

Importantly, the nationalisms at work within the UK are far from unique. They can be seen as local manifestations of one of the most powerful societal trends in Europe – the development of a powerful politics of attachment – to nations, regions and localities that persist below the state. This very broad dynamic has its roots in the profound changes to family, community and work that are associated with new technologies and economic logics that have brought enormous transformations. The spirit of resistance associated with the reaffirmation of places and traditions that stand outside or against this emerging order invokes a rich stew of sentiments, including deeply rooted anxieties about the pace and nature of change, and resentments that are sometimes directed at various equally powerless ‘others’. But these feelings also reflect a rising tide of political disenchantment and a growing sense of self-government and empowerment. These are currents in which nationalists and populists – of both left and right – find it easy to swim. They present challenges and shape agendas that politicians from the liberal mainstream generally find difficult to engage with. Nevertheless, such engagement and political leadership is vital for the health of democratic politics.

A starting point for a progressive rearticulation of some of these sentiments is a deeper reflection about why the sentiments and vernacular associated with community and nation offer people sources of meaning and security that conventional politics does not. What are the stories – of peoplehood, national redemption and collective endeavour – which politics needs to tell if it is going to capture the sentiments that lie behind the politics of attachment?

This rearticulation also requires Labour to take a very different approach to its territorial politics. In Scotland this is very apparent and long overdue. But in England too, a more nationally tailored rhetoric and distinctive policy proposition may be required. A starting point here is the appreciation that, for a growing number of its citizens, England represents an embryonic form of political community – a place with distinctive, collective interests and a living tradition that might sustain a different kind of common life to that on offer from mainstream politicians.

Aspects of that common life are, for most of the English, naturally expressed through close interrelations and dependencies with other national peoples, and have historically been developed through union with others. There is a strong liberal as well as (small-c) conservative lineage running through the modern self-image of the English, and this has yet to be fully tapped by politicians. The perception, for example, that Englishness and ‘Europe’ are alternative choices rather than natural bedfellows is quite a recent invention, and would have made little sense to some of the intellectual giants, like Ernest Barker or Leonard Hobhouse, who shaped the political thinking of progressive parties a century or more ago. A progressive expression of Englishness that reminds us of these deep connections, and challenges the Euroscepticism with which English nationalism is associated, should be a vital ingredient in the forthcoming EU referendum campaign.

It is undoubtedly true that the symbolism of Englishness has, recently, been claimed by those advocating chauvinist forms of nationalism. But to assume that this is the only kind of political meaning that an attachment to England sustains is mistaken. The English are among the most diverse of national peoples, and have long developed images of themselves that reflect and celebrate that diversity. There is evidence to suggest that the reluctance of many ethnic minority citizens to identify as English is starting to change. In key respects, our national identity is still characterised by a fuzziness which has fascinated and disappointed commentators for centuries. This, however, gives it an imaginative range, adaptability, and a lived, rather than stipulated, quality. And it also means that there is plenty of room for different visions, ideas and experiences of Englishness to be promoted and celebrated in the public culture.

These qualities need to be borne in mind when Labour figures turn, as they increasingly will, to the question of how to speak for England. The left, as Jon Cruddas and others have reminded us, can call upon an inspiring radical story. This harks back to the myth of Magna Carta and the ‘free-born Englishman’, runs through the work of romantic socialists, like William Morris, and was continued in the last century by figures like George Orwell, EP Thompson and Tony Benn.

Such a lineage is undoubtedly important but it is not sufficient to produce the kinds of narrative and idiom that Labour politicians will need to employ. Instead, this means developing resonant stories of the English as a nation with a strong sense of tradition, one which has long viewed itself as among the most dynamic and outward-looking peoples in the world. Both of these elements – the lineage and the stories – are needed to shape a culturally inclusive and robust form of nationality amid the exigencies of the present. On the political right there is a much greater receptivity to the disparate values and ideas around which political Englishness has coalesced. Stanley Baldwin in the 1930s, for instance, harnessed patriotic, nostalgic and modernist themes as he sought to broaden his party’s appeal to the new middle-class voters of the expanding suburbs.

Equally, while the focus in debates about patriotism and Englishness often comes to fall upon the cultural symbolism associated with flags, anthems, football teams and national holidays, it is important to see that this is only one aspect of the challenge posed by English national identity. What does Labour have to say to the emerging idea of the English as a people who possess a collective interest and – potentially – a sovereign will? Hoping that such questions will fade and that ‘normal’ politics will return looks like an increasingly unpromising response. Most urgently, the party needs to muster a coherent answer to the question posed by the Conservatives in the immediate aftermath of the Scottish referendum: does it accept the case for English devolution, or not? And if not, what is its preferred alternative?

The Conservatives have moved further and faster in response to these currents of opinion. But they too are unsure on this terrain, and face their own internal divisions – not just on Europe, but between those who are keen to give England greater powers within a remodelled union, and those worried about the latter’s future. Political Englishness may actually represent an opportunity for a party that is willing and able to develop a robust policy proposition tailored to England and the major challenges – of inequality, regional disparity and public service provision – that it faces.

There is no easy road ahead. Developing an English proposition while conveying a commitment to the continuing merits and importance of union will be difficult in a context where the SNP is pre-eminent in Scotland. But it is worth remembering that Labour has been wiped out north of the border while saying virtually nothing about Englishness or the English question. The union may well be at risk from developments in Scotland, but it is time that progressives realised that there is an increasingly tangible risk that the bonds of union may well be fraying because of developments in England too.

Michael Kenny is director of the Mile End Institute, Queen Mary University of London.