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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide