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
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.