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.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.