A "one nation market" could turn the economy on its head

Far beyond calls for a "responsible capitalism", Miliband should push for a "one nation market" that can really benefit the many, rather than the few.

We have absorbed the narrative and enjoyed the dynamism, but the great challenge will now rest in its practical execution. In the run up to the next election, the crucial divergences between the major political parties will concern the conversion of their philosophy into practice. While the underpinning philosophy can lend itself to subtlety, its execution will inevitably be quite different.

We have only glimpsed forthcoming Labour policy this conference season, but perhaps enough to gauge its general direction and approach. From Caroline Flint, the shadow energy and climate change secretary, have emerged plans to abolish the present energy regulator, Ofgem, and impose greater regulation on the country's retail energy market. And Gareth Thomas, the shadow minister for civil society, and Chris Leslie, the shadow financial secretary, have called for more stringent requirements on the banks to deliver on transparency and to invest a proportion of profits in communities - much like the Community Reinvestment Act pioneered in the US.

All of which is very well for those footing the bills. But for the "one nation" philosophy to really succeed, Ed Miliband - and those of all parties and none - must complement such regulation with a far more ambitious agenda. Far beyond calls for a "responsible capitalism", Miliband should push for a "one nation market" - a market that can really benefit the many, rather than the few.

Increased regulation of the energy retail market, for example, could see caps on energy bills and a relief for consumers, but will not in the long-term decentralise electricity distribution, or create greater retail competition to break up its supply. Policy should instead seek to grant "the many" the power to take hold of such markets and indeed open up the opportunity for communities and smaller groups to enter in.

As argued in a ResPublica paper published earlier this year, communities could  themselves be perceived as the potential producers and owners, rather than simply passive consumers, of their electricity generation and supply. A recent growth in co-operative energy models and a greater interest in community shares, have really revealed the nation's appetite for such widespread ownership and devolved investment to take place. "Responsible capitalism" may hold large energy companies to account, but a "one nation market" could turn a consolidated economy completely on its head.

Miliband's "one nation" call, coupled with Jon Cruddas's drive for a politics of the "common good" and a better "big society", has opened up the opportunity for such an agenda to emerge. Turning the philosophy into transformative practice will now be the challenge, and may indeed be the pivot upon which the next election is won or lost.

Caroline Julian is a senior researcher and project manager at the think-tank ResPublica, and co-author of Re-energising Our Communities: Transforming the energy market through local energy production

Ed Miliband applauds shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper at the Labour Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Julian is Deputy Director, Head of Policy and Strategy at the thinktank ResPublica.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.