‘It’s all about power. Who’s got it. Who knows how to use it’ – Buffy Summers
Reading through the essays in ‘One Nation: Power, Hope, Community’ it’s clear that Ed Miliband’s concept of one nation not only aims to set out a framework for what Labour would do if elected, but also how it will get it done.
Ed Miliband’s speech today, which set out the need to fix the UK’s broken markets so that “they work for working people” sets out out a clear dividing line between Labour and Cameron’s Conservatives, who “stands up to the weak, never to the strong”, intervening in markets to further the interests of a powerful elite. And Ed revealed some of the practical steps Labour will take, putting their ideals into action by offering incentives to firms who offer a living wage.
Reflecting on ‘One Nation’, of power, hope and community, it is the treatment of power in this collection that is most effective, and most revealing about Ed’s leadership and what we can expect from Labour over coming months.
Key to understanding one nation Labour is that, in the words of Dan Jarvis, it is fundamentally about “challenging who has power in our country”. Shabana Mahmood’s chapter focuses on how this power is rooted within the community. She explains that “power in this sense comes from knowing the who, the what, and the how… It’s not a ‘click your fingers and hey presto’ sort of power. It’s a power to motivate, inform, connect, jostle and co-operate, in the service of a better way.”
The essays explore how this understanding can reshape politics, focusing on redistributing power as a tool to redistribute other resources – to build economic growth to help people earn a wage that meets their living cost, to build public services they can trust and which respond to their needs. Since conference, Labour has been putting these arguments into practice, revealing how it means to challenge concentrations of power, standing up for those with too little, in order to share it more widely.
Identifying the concentration of power as a threat to our social cohesion, to the collective good, and to most people’s ability to live the life they choose, sets one nation Labour in direct contrast not only to Cameron’s Conservatives, but also to elements of New Labour.
This is illustrated in the way that the book has been conceived. In 1997, the vision underpinning New Labour was set out in ‘New Britain: My vision of a young country’, written by Tony Blair. In comparison, in ‘One Nation’, Ed’s direct contribution is an introduction. The responsibility to set out what one nation means in practice is given to a number of rising stars, all of whom entered parliament in 2010 or since. The contributors frequently refer back to Ed’s vision, exploring how the ideas they are describing relate to his 2012 conference speech, for example.
In contrast to the party’s recent past, a decision to share both power and responsibility more widely moves Labour towards a position of strength. The redistribution of power to strengthen the whole has become a consistent theme of Ed’s leadership.
In challenging the Daily Mail, Ed used the power available to him to challenge what is considered acceptable treatment of public figures in the press. He also used his platform to give the energy companies the choice to act or be constrained in the future. All this demonstrates how Labour can succeed through breaking up concentrations of power across British society.
For me, one of the most striking explorations of the inequality of power is set out in Gloria de Piero’s chapter. Following her work earlier in the year, where she asked why people hate politicians, she describes her engagement with non-voters in her constituency. She upturns the traditional canvass to speak to those who don’t vote to find out why. This not only demonstrates a commitment to sharing the opportunity of contributing to the political debate with those who do not formal engage (or are dismissed as not worth calling on), but also shows that by reaching out, by listening, and by offering disenfranchised people the chance to contribute, Labour can learn how to campaign more effectively.
A number of the essays are rooted deeply in what the MPs have learned from representing their communities. All show belief that community is a powerful force in people’s lives, and should be supported to flourish. They also demonstrate how being an effective and concerned constituency representative can help us, on a local and national level, develop the policies that will make positive change in people’s lives and win support in 2015.
The book also raises the question of difference. The narrative of community, of working together for better communities and better lives, giving people the opportunity to contribute to their society and be properly and fairly rewarded for this is powerful. But people are individuals, too: what it means to contribute and what fair rewards entail will vary widely. We need an understanding of one nation that can encompass these differences – between the nations, genders, ethnic groups, regions, and between individuals with different desires and dreams, those who are able bodied and those with disabilities – without whitewashing (pun intended) over these.
I have written in the past about how one nation Labour must be feminist. Labour’s commitment to rewarding firms that offer the living wage is essential, but the living wage in and of itself will not enable most low paid women to support themselves because they are not, and (unless there is a dramatic shift in gender relations) will not work full time across their working lives.
Proper support – child benefit, working tax credits, credits towards the state pension – will remain important to ensure the wider contributions of women and men who take time out to care are recognised. For those who cannot work, due to ill health, or disability, or plain old unemployment, a safety net that offers dignity and security while promoting support to work, is essential to bring Disraeli’s ‘two nations’ ever closer together.