The future of the left since 1884

One nation implications

Party conference speeches rarely live on beyond the next news cycle. But Ed Miliband’s ‘one nation’ speech will linger in the political consciousness longer than the average – because he told a story about how the policies he recommended were...


Party conference speeches rarely live on beyond the next news cycle. But Ed Miliband’s ‘one nation’ speech will linger in the political consciousness longer than the average – because he told a story about how the policies he recommended were embedded in his vision for Britain. Separating the high street and investment arms of the banks; making Maths and English compulsory to the age 18; repealing the NHS bill; forging a new deal on vocational qualifications for the 50 per cent who do not go to university – all of these announcements reflect Labour’s governing purpose of dispersing economic power more widely through institutions in which the majority have a stake. Drawing heavily on the language of duty, Miliband articulated his ‘faith’ in the opportunities for social change.

This is a rejoinder to those who praised the delivery but declared the speech a content-free zone. Rather than a just being a clever bit of political positioning, Miliband’s one nation is definably social democratic. In the Times Matthew Parris worried that Miliband’s ‘one nation’ story did not contain the terms ‘individual’, ‘liberty’ or ‘enterprise’. This misses the point and throws into relief the distance Miliband has opened between the two main parties. This does not make Miliband anti-liberal as the commentator might reply. Rather, by explicitly embracing the language of the common good he confirmed that one nation is a vision deeply troubled by rising inequality and is committed to reasserting democratic control over forces and institutions that shape people’s lives. Against those who suggest that more austerity and a relaxation of employment law is what the country needs, Labour should be proud to occupy this ground.

In contrast with Miliband’s ‘predators v producers’ speech in 2011, Miliband succeeded this time in giving this speech a human touch. By interweaving the personal and political, Miliband translated the guiding principles and arguments of his politics into the language of everyday life. Through stories of the young unemployed and the small business owner, he evoked how life under Labour would be changed by his leadership, and demonstrated an understanding of the uncertainty people experience through forces that seem distant and beyond their control. As we noted in advance of the speech, this puts the onus on Labour to demonstrate how politics can once again be the vehicle through which people exercise democratic control over these forces, and why “…no interest…is too powerful to be held to account.”

As ideas about the squeezed middle and responsible capitalism did two years ago, one nation Labour has made the political weather. But as well as positioning himself against the coalition, Miliband also positioned his party against that which, by 2010, New Labour had become. Thus, while the attack on Gove’s vision for a two-tier education system was explicit and welcome to the conference hall, without mentioning Tony Blair the speech reached out to those failed by New Labour’s lazer focus on getting 50 per cent of people into higher education.

Miliband challenge the government and his party’s past: he must now challenge the party he leads. That Ed Miliband has positioned against New Labour whilst taking the New Labour wing of the party with him is no small feat, and he has so far avoided the factionalism which came to characterise previous Labour oppositions. Groups which may in the past have developed into critical challenges to a Labour leader – ‘In the Black Labour’, Blue Labour, Progress’s Purple Book and of course the trade unions – all will feel represented in one nation Labour and are all on board with Miliband’s leadership.

Yet without further fleshing out what one nation will entail, Miliband is vulnerable to the accusation that his broad and far-reaching vision is one that does not effectively engage with the detailed reality of the policy making choices facing Labour in 2015. To counter this criticism, significant policy development is now required within the framework of one nation Labour. What must Miliband and the Labour movement do to realise its potential?

Miliband’s speech made mention of the one nation economy. Labour must now seek to build momentum behind the debate on the values of a new-political economy which will form the basis of any serious centre-left project of the future.

Miliband has made plain that the economy is no longer protected from the values-based analysis this requires, and expanding the institutional opportunities for patience, stewardship and increased stability to play this role is an important next step. This requires new indicators of progress to match the crisis of thinking visited upon an economic orthodoxy focused on inflation and GDP in 2007-8. As well as counter-cyclical measures to tackle future bubbles or initiatives to distribute capital and investment across the regions, the one nation economy must develop a renewed sense of what it considers to be economically valuable, and how this coheres with the broader, programmatic objectives of the left.

Similarly, to be relevant, a social democratic vision of a one nation must be one with a coherent position on public services. Waves of reform agendas pitched against staff have bruised confidence in the public sector and left services users increasingly frustrated. But there is hope. As Fabian research has argued, the coalition’s open public services programme is unpopular and ineffective. While the focus has been on Miliband’s commitment to repealing the NHS bill, the discussion of the values of the public service Labour will seek to preserve could potentially be more important. As Miliband remarked:

“The magic of the NHS for me is that you don’t leave your credit card at the door…it’s based on a whole different set of values, a whole different set of values…Not values of markets, money and exchange but values of compassion, care and co-operation.”

The challenge is now to take these values and sketch out an approach to public services that moves beyond stale debates over competition and choice, while taking public servants with him. The Tories will depict Labour as at the mercy of both the public sector and the unions, but a one nation approach can be successful in stressing the interdependence of the public and private. Miliband should be bold in defending the values and ethos of the public good.

Crucially, to have any real substance, Labour’s one nation society cannot be one as unequal and divided as our own. This has been repeatedly stressed, but how will Labour deliver measures to reduce this? Predistribution holds that through economic reform we can combine lower levels of inequality and a commitment to social justice with fiscal realism, but the levers of this process are notoriously difficult and hitherto out of reach. Furthermore, the political feasibility of such an approach is questionable.

In building support for existing proposals such as a wealth tax, the widening space emerging between the coalition partners on these policies hands Miliband an obvious political position. Leveraging this, he should make reinstalling asset-based measures such as the savings gateway and the child trust fund (effective long term predistributive levers) a condition of co-operation with the Liberal Democrats.

As the economy forms the cornerstone of the one nation approach, how do we ensure this is green? Miliband’s commitment to a 2030 target for decarbonising the energy networks was welcomed by the green lobby but the green agenda did not feature in his speech. As Neal Lawson wrote in the New Statesman, one nation Labour must, to be credible, also be one planet Labour.

Here, again, is area in which Lib-Lab policy concerns can be driven forward by cooperation today, advancing the green agenda and putting the coalition under strain. This agenda is non-negotiable and Labour should make much more of the fact that greening its investment plans if in government would deliver economic recovery as well as future sustainability. While many in the party know this, the onus is on Ed Balls to use the issue to make commitments, dividing himself and Osborne, while isolating the climate sceptic wing of the government.

Some of the things that Labour want to do will mean challenging the public. But rather than ignoring them, this means taking the public on a journey by re-evaluating how we make public arguments in a way that avoids deference to technocratic expertise or authoritarian managerialism.

The starting point will be to lay the ground work for bold policy announcements. For instance, a commitment to universal childcare is currently whispered about by Labour MPs in thinktank seminars. But this should be debated as a measure that will involve upfront expenditure (though significant savings through its impact on reducing child poverty and widening labour market participation in future) paid for by spending reductions in other areas. This is why, though Miliband is right to warn that some Conservative cuts will have to be accepted, he must identify specifics as we move nearer to an election. Political and economic radicalism must be married with courage and realism.

The issue of spending cuts comes back to the point made earlier about the need to demonstrate that one nation Labour is more than a vague broad-based appeal to competing wings of the party. Miliband must challenge the party where necessary and accepting spending cuts will be an obvious territory for this. Whilst Cameron should be derided for his lack of vision beyond deficit reduction, Labour cannot surrender to complacency about public spending.

Related to this, we must ask whether one nation can be the language with which the Labour party successfully discusses immigration, crime and welfare. The backbone of the historic centre-left contract – delivering steady rises in incomes and living standards – which in the past may have ameliorated these tensions simply will not be available at the next election.

The predistribution agenda provides Labour with a basis on which they can pledge to cut welfare spending. By intervening in the market to raise wages in the low-wage low-skill sector, lower bills and bring down housing costs, the country can spend less taking the edge off the worst effects of in-work poverty. Beyond this, Miliband must make the argument that much welfare spending provides a sticking plaster for a failing economy.

Like crime, immigration continues to represent a weak spot for Labour, but Miliband’s speech in Manchester showcased an attempt to add nuance to this polarised debate. As the coalition does its best to alienate the police force, can Labour take a one nation public services approach to work better with the police and set out a convincing agenda on crime?

Much more remains to be done, but the strength of a powerful idea has infused the policy review with an energy and commitment not seen since the early-90s. As Cameron’s rule is increasingly exposed as an end in itself, building on the idea of one nation Labour can be the means by which to restore Labour to governing credibility with a sufficient proportion of the public. At Conservative party conference 2012 they continued to sell the blank book of policy ideas. With enough hard work, this item will be discontinued in 2013.

Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.