The hunger for intellectual and political renewal within the labour movement was evident at the Fabian’s New Year Conference in January. Ed Milliband’s invigorating and hugely encouraging speech showed how Labour’s ‘one nation’ vision for reshaping our country from the foundations is beginning to grow in scope and confidence. That’s good, because we all know in 2013 broad ambitions must become specific aims. Expect the record attendance of a thousand people to be repeated at next year’s conference.
But there are dangers in the way; and the most dangerous are those we don’t see. What a few of us saw was that every single speaker at the conference, except for Ed Milliband, ignored the need to acknowledge that our one nation is also four nations. Going home I found I understood why the old SNP taunt of ‘London Labour’ rings so true in many non-English (even non-London?) ears. It seems at times that ‘one nation’, to those on the platform, means just England. This is serious. For all of us.
One conference panel discussed ‘Roadblocks to a Majority’ in 2015. We heard about the polls, the press, the possible ‘recovery’, the spending envelope, the retreat of UKIP even. We didn’t hear about the really devastating road block. We didn’t hear about the referendum in 2014 – the referendum which, if we lose will see dozens of Scottish Labour MPs lose their seats following year. Game over – for all of us. It may or may not be a big risk, who knows, but it has a devastating and permanent impact.
And most speakers, shadow cabinet and otherwise, did their best to make that perhaps small risk bigger. Unintentionally, of course.
Shadow ministers, because of our UK-wide media, speak to the whole UK. But for almost everything – from health to housing to transport to local government – they speak for England only, not the devolved three nations. But they never acknowledge that; they speak as if England were the whole UK. They speak as if devolution means that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can be left aside. And that deepens the passions of those who want to break away.
Each one of the proposed ‘Fabian pledges’ were on matters devolved to parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, parliaments which sometimes have already done what the pledges ask for. Set up a national care system to pay for care in old age? In Scotland we’ve had free personal care for the elderly since the then Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition introduced it in the Community Care and Health (Scotland) Act 2002. (That long ago….). Reform council tax by adding upper bands? Wales has already introduced an additional upper band on council tax and Scotland, where it’s been frozen for 6 years, has been debating replacing it with a local income tax. Re-nationalise the railways? Only if the governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland agree – and find the means to do so from their own budgets. Build a million new homes? I’m not sure if that million was just for England, as it was supported by shadow cabinet ministers with an English housing remit only, and it’s a great idea, but it would mean negotiating with the governments of the other three nations to see if they would find the monies to contribute to that million from their own budgets. (We’d provide the money from UK funds to the other three nations, said one afterwards. Ring-fenced? To the SNP?)
Even the debate on localism left devolution, itself something that ought to be part of the bigger localism agenda, unacknowledged. The admirable achievements and ambitions of all who spoke – opening the way towards a significant understanding that real change can often only happen at the level of place – ignored the current impact at least of Scottish devolution: greater centralisation by all Scottish governments, Lab/Lib and SNP, culminating in the recent nationalisation of the police under the control of a single minister and the requirement that all local authority leaders write to Scottish ministers setting out how their local authority will deliver government policy as a pre-requisite for receiving government grant. Scotland – and Scottish Labour – need engagement and support from English Labour in reshaping its policies towards real localism. It doesn’t need either ignorance or to be ignored.
One nation means making sense of four nations in the UK. It starts by (London) Labour acknowledging, owning, celebrating the devolutionary settlement which was its own creation. One nation binds those four nations together when Labour ministers and shadow ministers (and think tanks) use the experiences in those four nations to share solutions and learn from differences, discovering political riches and avoiding electoral roadblocks.
If we don’t, then our own creation could come back to bite us.