The future of the left since 1884

The many layers of one nation Labour

'One nation' Labour. What a blinder. I am brimming over in admiration for Ed Miliband and his team for this most audacious of rhetorical land grabs. Not because it was a cheeky, clever conference week headline but because it provides...


‘One nation’ Labour. What a blinder. I am brimming over in admiration for Ed Miliband and his team for this most audacious of rhetorical land grabs. Not because it was a cheeky, clever conference week headline but because it provides the organising concept to drive Labour’s political and intellectual renewal. One nation works because in just two words it performs on so many levels, the layers peeling away like an onion. It will become the phrase that defines Ed’s leadership to 2015 and beyond.

One nation is first and foremost a breakthrough moment in the political language of Ed Miliband. At last he has found a way of describing his political vision than gets him out of the seminar room. I’m a big fan of the squeezed middle, pre-distribution and responsible capitalism but then I run a thinktank. This was the first time Ed managed to capture his ‘project’ in words and phrases that will make sense to the vast majority of people who don’t pore over the nitty-gritty of politics. The idea of one nation now provides the framework that will help people make sense of the policy detail to follow.

Next, one nation is a statement of what the Conservative party is not. You don’t need to buy all the conference season Tory-bashing to see that David Cameron now has a serious positioning problem. The charge that he represents and speaks for a tiny elite will be made again and again. Although Cameron has tried to follow Labour into the territory of ‘responsibility at the top’ he is stymied by his instincts, his party and his backers. He has watered-down banking reform, he will not accept workers on remuneration committees and the chances are he will reject any proposals for binding media regulation. Meanwhile he is being pushed by his party to the right on Europe, welfare, immigration, climate change scepticism and tax cuts. If Cameron has any sense he will use Ed’s challenge to try and wrest the Conservatives back to the centre-ground that he originally tried to occupy. It is there after all where he will find the voters he needs if he is to ever form a majority government. However the Tory right seems to be growing more restless. Until Ed’s speech the Tories seemed to be dusting off Michael Howard’s 2005 playbook, preparing to tack rightwards to see off UKIP and solidify core support.

Reaching out to former Tory supporters plays two roles. It of course helps win over some waverers who supported Cameron in 2010 and are considering Labour this time. It’s always better to woo swing voters than malign their past decisions, whether they voted Tory or Liberal Democrat. But reaching out is actually more important in establishing the legitimacy of Miliband’s governing project among people who will never vote for him. Ed can win a solid majority with the support of 30 per cent of British adults, and the marginal voter is now further to the left than in recent elections because of the collapse of Liberal Democrat support.  But Miliband will only be able to drive through radical change against powerful vested interests if he can present himself as leading the whole nation, with the interests of everyone in mind. To win Ed doesn’t need many Tory voters to back him, but to govern he needs them to respect him. This was the trick Tony Blair pulled off which Gordon Brown could never find within him.

In one nation Miliband has also discovered a formula which can reflect and reinforce the leftward shift of public views on the economy without scaring the horses. In his speech Miliband again made the case for a total economic reordering so that markets work in everyone’s interests, but this time he found a language that was inclusive not polarising. Miliband embraced a ‘99/1’ position which binds the vast majority together by suggesting that almost everyone had been left behind and let down by a tiny elite at the top. Framing traditional centre-left concerns as a problem of ‘middle versus top’ has far wider appeal than a call for justice for the ‘bottom’, the lens of social democratic and Rawlsian liberal thought in recent decades. But Miliband did not abandon his egalitarian roots, re-affirming his commitment to reducing income inequality. For he also argued that for the whole nation to do well, the country must support the ‘forgotten fifty percent’: the bottom half of the labour market or the young people who want a positive alternative to university. So one nation can be a way of combining an economic argument which proposes that we will all benefit from tackling the long-tail of educational and labour market underachievement, with the established social justice argument that society owes it to everyone to provide good lifetime opportunities. It is a calling-card for radical social democratic politics in a society where class divides and defines us less but which nevertheless remains riven by inequality.

One nation is however more than an argument about socio-economic rebalancing. It is a synthesis of Miliband’s eclectic social democrat personality. In The Shape of Things to Come, the Fabians’ recent book on emerging Labour thinking, I wrote that Ed’s political project seeks to bring together his enduring commitment to Crosslandite egalitarianism, a strong streak of political and social liberalism, and some of the communitarianism of the Blue Labour project with its focus on relationships, morality and culture. In the speech the views and language of Blue Labour thinkers Marc Stears and Jon Cruddas were very visible, in particular the talk of ‘common life’ and ‘conserving’; but Miliband also highlighted liberal values such as openness, malleability and the embracing of difference as core components of Britain’s shared way of life. The passage on immigration captured this synthesis most concisely and is worth reading alongside my chapter on the same topic in The Shape of Things to Come. Having said that, perhaps Miliband’s successful one nation synthesis owes as much to Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony as to earnest seminars reappraising the Labour tradition; Ed certainly did well to ride the wave of the Olympics to define a left version of Britishness far better than Gordon Brown managed in his repeated attempts. Miliband will need to find new ways to capture the richness of this conception of liberal patriotism as the memories of the Games fade.

There are pitfalls ahead however. One nation works because it brings together the economic and the cultural (Miliband tried something similar before in two speeches on responsibility he gave in summer 2011). It is a response to a rather atomistic, transactional and economic view of life to which both Thatcherism and New Labour grew accustomed (though neither was without their moral dimensions). But we need to question the extent to which political goals linked to relationships, culture and morality are attainable. It’s hard to fault the aims behind a (tolerant, open and feminist) version of Blue Labour: responsibility, shared lives, autonomy, stewardship, vocation and cooperation. However to what extent can politicians make any of this happen? When politics is not about defining the rules of the game, but shaping how people play, making change happen becomes very hard. In his speech Ed said one nation ‘doesn’t just tell us the country we can be. It tells us how we must rebuild.’ That view works well when it comes to arguing about economic reforms to up-skill the bottom of the labour market. But on matters of culture, values and relationships the sources of change are far more diffuse and few are really in the hands of politicians. The emptiness of the ‘big society’ agenda offers an important warning to the left before we get too wrapped up in a new politics of culture under the one nation banner.

One nation provides not just intellectual synthesis for the left. It challenges the practice of our politics too. The one nation trope brilliantly positions Labour on the side of the small businessman as well as the public sector worker; and against sectional interests in favour of the national interest. In this Ed achieved something Tony Blair never managed, by defining himself as ‘for’ the whole nation, and the private sector in particular, without being ‘against’ the unions and public sector workers. But in the months and years ahead this will have some difficult implications for the Labour movement. The Labour party will need to prove it is not a champion merely for public workers, the poor and the unions. And both the unions and the party need to make themselves relevant to the lives of many more people with middle earnings in the private sector. Labour must reach out to members, supporters and future candidates working in business; and the unions must show they can organise and rebuild across every industrial sector, since greater collectivism in the private sector is an essential prerequisite for fairer earnings distributions, better quality of work and economic rebalancing.

Reaching out into the world of business matters because in every other respect Labour really can claim to be the one nation party. It is the only party which has strength across every part of Britain (although winning some more non-metropolitan seats in the South has symbolic importance). And it comes far closer than any other party to looking like the nation in terms of class, race, age, gender, faith or disability. Put this alongside the left’s slow accommodation with a new progressive patriotism, and it’s now possible to see where one nation takes Labour – to stake out its claim as the true party of Britain.

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