Lib Dem Minister: Ed Miliband’s “One Nation” Labour is a delusion

Perhaps the Labour leader’s brother could assist him in coming up with a more economically literate policy platform, says Lib Dem minister Jeremy Browne.

We've had “Old Labour”, “New Labour”; now it's “One Nation Labour”. Ed Miliband is staking a lot on this rebranding. It is not, he insists, just the appropriation of the most hackneyed old cliché in British politics, it defines his ambitions for office.

It is easy to criticise the emptiness and evasiveness. And the vagueness; the lack of meat on the bones. To be “One Nation Labour” is to defend child-benefit hand-outs for the wealthiest 15 per cent of the population, including asset millionaires like Ed Miliband, paid for from the taxes of much poorer people, on the unintelligible basis that the richest section of society constitutes "the squeezed middle". To be “One Nation Labour” is to believe that it is immoral to have a top rate of tax lower than 50 per cent, but not to have the moral fortitude to commit to reinstating this rate in office. To be “One Nation Labour” is to claim a preference for democracy over unaccountable entrenched privilege, only to connive and vote to scupper House of Lords reform.

But the deepest criticism of “One Nation Labour” is more profound than just dithering policy indecision and ducking difficult choices. The fundamental flaw with “One Nation Labour” is its crushing parochialism.

To believe in socialism in one country is fantasy. The big fact of life today is how many different nations are rising in global importance. The world has never been more inter-connected; more globalised. There is a revolution taking place, with the dramatic rise in Asian prosperity and political influence, that seems to have escaped the exponents of “One Nation Labour”.

That is surely because Ed Miliband is a highly conservative and nostalgic politician. He takes his slogan from a nineteenth century Conservative Prime Minister. He becomes most animated when idealising the shared hardship of ration-book era Britain. He reserves his greatest ideological admiration for a recently deceased historian who championed the virtues of the Soviet Union.

But Britain will not thrive in a bubble of isolation floating somewhere in the sepia-tinted past. To prosper now we have to be internationally interconnected and competitive.

So, for a start, “One Nation Labour” would have to set tax rates that were globally competitive. To do otherwise would be ruinously destructive of our tax-base and our ability to fund good public services. That is why this coalition government is cutting corporation tax in Britain to the lowest level in the G7 to attract new investment and jobs. And it is also why Ed Miliband needs to be aware that globalised businesses and entrepreneurs are unlikely to chose to pay avaricious rates of tax under “One Nation Labour”, to the detriment of our public finances.

“One Nation Labour” would need to understand that we live in a far more globalised employment market. That explains Polish plumbers and Indian call-centres. And this market is getting far much competitive. It is getting more highly skilled. That is why this coalition government is reforming education to raise standards. Britain has fallen down the league tables in childhood numeracy and literacy. We will not succeed as a “knowledge economy” if we have a less knowledgeable workforce than our competitors. “One Nation Labour”, if it remains in cahoots with militant teaching unions wanting to protect the past, will oversee a Britain that becomes less competitive and less attractive to inward investors. The children forging ahead in South Korea and Singapore will not make allowances for an inward-looking British education system that fails to equip our children for the modern world.

And “One Nation Labour” would be forced to understand that no country can live beyond its means and borrow money without reference to the outside world. What vanity to believe we can ignore pragmatic welfare reform and the financial implications of a rapidly aging population. The countries that spend money they cannot afford and shirk reform – Greece is a good example – certainly don't live in splendid “One Nation” isolation. Quite the opposite: they become wholly dependent on others, forfeit their self-government and self-respect, and the poorest and most vulnerable people end up suffering the greatest hardship.

When it comes down to it, “One Nation Labour” is a delusion. It sounds reassuring precisely because it is backward-looking, nostalgic and implies a comforting isolation from the rest of the world. It suggests that Britain can go it alone, without reference to others. And crucially, it implies that the hard choices facing other countries around the world need not apply to us. On our island we can spend money and dodge difficult decisions without consequences.

Where can Ed Miliband turn to try and devise instead a more plausible ideological platform? Maybe he should start close to home. David Miliband has a reputation for being personally aloof. It probably cost him the Labour leadership in 2010. But he could possibly help his brother now, if Ed Miliband wants to be helped.

After two-and-a-half years travelling the world as Foreign Secretary, and two-and-a-half more benefiting personally from his internationally marketable skills, David Miliband must at least understand the parochial limitations of “One Nation Labour”. Maybe he could assist his leader by encouraging Labour to have a more outward-looking, up-to-date, globally aware and economically literate vision than Ed Miliband, with “One Nation Labour”, has managed to come up with on his own.

Jeremy Browne is a Home Office Minister and the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Taunton Deane.

 

Ed Miliband speaking at last year's Labour Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser