It’s time One Nation Labour got a bit more specific

The electorate prefer their politics in humanoid rather than wonkery.

The electorate prefer their politics in humanoid rather than wonkery

This summer I will publish the book, One Nation Britain: History, the Progressive Tradition, and Practical Ideas for Today’s Politicians. Odd timing perhaps since, even before the recent set of elections, it is clear that the One Nation concept has taken a bit of a battering in 2014.

In January Simon Danszcuk argued that “the public is actively turned off by the torturous repetition of political mantras”. Similarly, when asked whether she regularly discussed ‘One Nation’ with constituents, Stella Creasy responded that “if you ever met people from Walthamstow you wouldn’t tell them anything like that because they’d quite quickly put you in your place”.

The electorate, rightly, prefers their politics in humanoid rather than wonkery. If a commodities-trader-turned-career-politician in Nigel Farage is able to even semi-plausibly look like a normal guy, things have gone wrong somewhere. Certainly, when asked to give a one word definition of his politics, Ed Miliband can’t continue to answer “One Nation”.

In a sense, the academic in Miliband is trying to historicise his Premiership before it has happened. That, for the reasons Danszcuk and Creasy articulated, is a mistake.

And yet, on the policy side, Miliband basically has a point. The One Nation ideal – though insufficiently understood (which has to be at least partially Labour’s fault) – does indeed accord with both what the electorate generally want, and what Labour are setting out to give them.

This first article sets out the theory behind One Nation, arguably thereby committing the sin Creasy and Danszcuk outline, but it remains necessary – vague promises on top of a vaguely understood ideology require the redressing of both. Follow-up pieces in the coming weeks will deal with the specific One Nation precedents of certain policies in any case.

So, first of all, what actually is One Nation? Benjamin Disraeli’s initial 1872 speech which launched the concept was always a little fuzzy – not mentioning the phrase ‘One Nation’ (nor its regular appendage of ‘Tory democracy’) once. About half the speech was on defending the position of the monarchy, the Church of England and the House of Lords, and under a fifth on social reform.

But others have provided concrete definitions more attuned to modern sensibilities. In the 1980s the Thatcherite Wet Ian Gilmour described the domestic perspective of his own One Nation politics as:

  • being wary of ‘neo-liberal economic doctrine,’
  • holding a concern for the ‘wellbeing of the entire population,’ and
  • stressing the ‘importance of the social services.’

An entirely reasonable overarching stance, and previous Labour thinkers have essentially agreed.

On Gilmour’s first point, in the early 1980s the young Gordon Brown MP, fresh from gaining his PhD in History, railed against the excesses of Thatcherism as having “recreated the two nations that even Disraeli sought to make one, victimising the weak, raiding the incomes of the poor, abandoning any commitment to social justice and discarding all concern for abolishing poverty, all in the name of monetarism which, even at its best, is greed served up as ideology”.

The market cannot be the be-all and end-all, and transferring the tax burden from rich to poor (by costing lower upper income tax rates through higher VAT) was and is not a very One Nation approach.

On the second, in his 1934 book My England then Labour leader George Lansbury denounced Baldwinite Conservatism (cheap money plus fiscal retrenchment, very 2010) as having led to a social separation of bosses and workers: put simply, he argued, “Disraeli’s two nations no longer live together”.

It is not enough to deliver for a class or a region, a One Nation administration must govern for the entire population, whether rich or poor. This means looking at the headlines (and regional data) behind the improving economic performance for sure, but it also means moderating the ‘out of touch Etonians’ stuff.

And on the third, Ed Miliband himself talked in his famous 2012 Party Conference speech of ‘One Nation’ – we heard the phrase again as the country came together to defeat fascism. And we heard it again as Clement Attlee’s Labour government rebuilt Britain after the war. Using collective capital – i.e. taxes – to fund collective goods must remain a core objective.

As such, Labour need to watch the ‘#anythingzeitgeistytax’ approach to fiscal consolidation. Of course there are major exceptions, but for a party of the left Labour have had an odd relationship with the concept of tax this parliament.

And yet, whatever the Daily Mail says, this is all very different from blanket ‘Red Ed’ style socialism.

One Nation – with its concept of a laddered social hierarchy, but with each class paying suitable heed to the collective – is indeed the logical conclusion for a Labour Party that recognises that nationalisation can no longer be the be-all and end all, accepts the need for top rates of income tax lower than those levied in the majority of the Thatcher years, and is now more or less committed to increasing levels of home ownership.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of these, One Nation socialism is clearly a contradiction in terms. Socialism is about uniformity of outcomes, and that One Nation politics does not promise. As Lansbury noted in 1934, ‘uniformity’ was the result of ‘machine capitalism’ and ‘is abhorrent to us.’

The forthcoming book sets out this theory in its first chapter. But it is fundamentally a work of specifics: taxes a One Nation government of whatever colour could raise (and some it could reduce), particular policies that accord with the definitions above, and which, for Labour, would involve the party moving left in some areas and right on others.

It is time One Nation got a bit more specific – both in the ‘isms,’ and in its retail offer for the doorstep. Articles in the following weeks will attempt to do that.

Richard Carr is a lecturer at the Labour History Research Unit, Anglia Ruskin University, and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. He publishes the book One Nation Britain this summer

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