Sunday, 22 September 2013

Reflections on One Nation Labour

Michael Jacobs

Ed Miliband’s speech to the 2012 Labour Party Conference was doubly significant. His bravura performance – speaking for more than an hour without notes – had a palpable effect on the way in which he was perceived by the Westminster media lobby, rebuilding his fragile leadership credentials in a single stroke. And the theme of the speech, the idea that Labour stood for ‘One Nation’, became the slogan for Miliband’s attempted resurrection of the party’s ideology and electoral fortunes.

Taking Peter Mandelson’s advice that the public do not hear what a politician is saying until he or she is bored of saying it, Miliband has taken every opportunity since to hammer the concept of One Nation Labour into the public mind. Under the weight of repetition supple ideas quickly harden into vacuous slogans, so it is worth taking a moment to explore what this one really means and the work it is meant to perform. It was for this reason that the Political Studies Association organised a conference in April this year at Queen Mary College London, supported by The Political Quarterly, to examine the ideology and politics of ‘One Nation Labour’, from which the articles in this collection are drawn.

Two themes emerged. One was that One Nation Labour is already just a name for whatever the current Labour leadership thinks at the moment, rather as socialism was for Herbert Morrison. The willingness to wrap every possible idea that Labour is currently now interested in – from environmentalism to gender equality, from opposing Scottish devolution to housing policy – under the One Nation blanket is irresistible, the inevitable consequence of sloganisation. But it has a deadening effect on ideological clarity nevertheless.

The other is that, underneath all that, the Labour leadership actually has a very clear sense of mission, for which One Nation Labour is its given name. This is to build what Stewart Wood, Miliband’s chief intellectual adviser, here describes as ‘a new settlement’, a fundamentally reformed configuration of the British economy and the society it supports. Citing Margaret Thatcher’s willingness to challenge the post-war economic order as the model which Labour in office will need to follow, Wood sketches a set of potentially far-reaching responses to the deep economic and social challenges Britain faces over the next decade. Implicit in his prospectus – and explicitly in the writings of other Labour thinkers such as Maurice Glasman – is the idea that Britain needs to move towards a more German-style economy, with (for example) a regional banking system geared to supporting the real economy, stronger middle-sized firms, trade union representation on corporate boards and strong vocational education and training.

(So admiring are current Labour leaders of the German economic model that there are times in this debate when one could be forgiven for thinking that there is indeed such a thing as One Nation Labour, and that nation is Germany.)

Yet as Mark Wickham Jones points out, none of this is actually new. Not only did Tony Blair frequently adopt the Disraelian rhetoric of ‘One Nation’, but the central economic ideas now being developed by Miliband’s team are remarkably similar to those which emerged from Neil Kinnock’s policy review process in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This does not make their present reincarnation any the less appropriate, but it does offer warning of the difficulties Labour will have in developing them into an electorally convincing and politically implementable package.

Given the focus in contemporary politics on the personality of the party leader, most of that task will inevitably fall onto Miliband himself. In their detailed account of the development of Labour’s ideology and rhetoric since Miliband’s election in 2010, John Gaffney and Amarjit Lahel offer an intriguing narrative framework through which to understand this process. Tim Bale, meanwhile, explores the hard stuff: the difficulties Labour is already facing in translating the rhetoric of One Nation into concrete policy towards reform of the welfare state, at a time when the coalition government is taking an axe to cherished Labour values, and appears to be winning the battle for public opinion.

One Nation Labour remains a work in progress. But its success or failure will be clear in less than two years.

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