One Nation Labour and its challenges

There is a tension between Miliband's centrist language and his left-wing policies.

Initial reactions to Ed Miliband’s Labour conference speech have been overwhelmingly positive, with even Tories praising the delivery, if not the content. And it really was an excellent conference speech – by far Miliband's best, potently argued without over-doing the wonkish language.

It was a speech that signalled the birth of "One Nation Labour"– a potentially election-winning concept. While Miliband didn’t deliver any new policy announcements, the theme of unity is well-judged for the current climate. It also fits neatly with Labour attacks on Conservatives as elitist and out-of-touch, and criticisms of David Cameron for failing to govern in the inclusive manner he promised. So far, so promising.

But the life of "One Nation Labour" will not be without its challenges. Here are a few that it will have to successfully overcome if it is to secure the party a majority in 2015.

1. ‘New Labour in disguise’

The most obvious Tory attack line will be to remind voters of New Labour and argue that "One Nation Labour" merely amounts to the same ideas in a new disguise.

Miliband has said before that "the era of New Labour has passed". But a new catchphrase for the party, appealing as it may be, will meet with cynicism from the millions of voters for whom "New Labour" merely equates to dashed dreams.

2. Who does One Nation Labour speak for?

One of the curious aspects of Miliband’s speech was that, while it was delivered in decidedly centrist terms, its concrete policy content did not reflect that. To put it another way, this speech would have been viewed as a lurch to the left had it lacked the "One Nation" theme. The stern words about immigration were pure Blue Labour. And on education and health, Miliband’s trenchant criticisms of the current government’s policies were, by extension, rejections of New Labour’s reforms too. With this Parliament not quite yet into its second half, there is ample time for him to deal with these issues. But the crux of his problem is that as the election nears, the double act of pleasing the left with policy announcements, while speaking in rhetoric aimed at winning over swing voters will no longer be viable.

3. Committing too soon? 

Although Miliband has been shy of making concrete policy commitments, he risks future policy being hemmed in by his criticisms of the current government.

Take the 50% tax rate and the NHS. While his opposition to the government’s policies in these areas has broad appeal, it would be easy to believe that Labour have made concrete promises to restore the 50% tax in 2015 and repealing the NHS bill – neither of which are true. In the case of the NHS bill, this may simply not be viable by 2015; indeed, repealing the bill on account of its expensive and top-heavy nature would require more expensive and top-heavy policies.

4. That crowded centre ground

Taking the speech on its ‘One Nation’ theme, this was a plea for the centre ground. But, even if it was successful in helping to establish Cameron’s Conservative Party as not being of that centre, Labour face other challenges for it.

Nick Clegg’s former director of strategy Richard Reeves recently argued that “the left-wing votes 'borrowed' from Labour in 2010 will not be available in 2015" and, accordingly, that the Lib Dems should focus on making themselves the party of the "radical centre". The trouble for Miliband is that such a political space seems little different from his own "One Nation" theme. And predictions of Lib Dem wipeout have become less fashionable, recognising both the party’s long history of defying grim circumstances and, more importantly, the immense personal popularity of many of its 57 MPs. It will be very difficult for Miliband to make inroads into the 57 – as he must – without offending some of his own core support.

 

Ed Miliband delivers his keynote speech at the Labour Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories