Inside Miliband's "one nation" project

The Labour leader's chief strategist Stewart Wood on the inspiration he takes from Thatcher and the five principles behind "one nation".

I've just returned from Queen Mary, University of London, where some of Labour's brightest minds, including Jon Cruddas, Jonathan Rutherford and Maurice Glasman, are meeting for a one day conference on "The Politics of One Nation Labour" (the event is being live blogged by Labour List). 

Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband's consigliere, who sits in the shadow cabinet as minister without portfolio, opened proceedings and drew laughter when he revealed that he'd just bought a copy of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (a favourite text of Margaret Thatcher's). One of the main reasons he entered politics, he said, was Thatcher and her belief that "ideas could be transformational". As Miliband has hinted in his statements since her death, he and his allies take inspiration from how she broke with the political and economic consensus of the time and established a new governing philosophy (although one might pause to note the irony of a Thatcher-esque project that describes itself as "one nation"). 

Wood remarked that Thatcher's achievement lay in spotting "the exhaustion of an old settlement", adding that the public would reward those who did the same today. Miliband's one nation approach, he said, was a "profound challenge" to the consensus that took root in 1979. 

He went on to outline the five main principles behind "one nation" Labour:

1. A different kind of economy

2. A determination to tackle inequality

3. An emphasis on responsibility (at the top and the bottom)

4. Protecting the elements of our common life

5. Challenging the ethics of neoliberalism

What does all this mean for policy? Today, Wood emphasised what he calls a "supply side revolution from the left": reforming the banking system so that it supports, rather than hinders, long-term growth and an active industrial policy; working with employers to build technical education and "filling out the middle" of our "hourglass economy" by expanding use of the living wage. Without uttering the dread word "predistribution", he spoke of building an economy in which greater equality is "baked in", not "bolted on afterwards". Rather than merely ameliorating inequalities through the tax and benefits system (although Wood emphasised that redistribution would remain an important part of the social democratic arsenal), the state should act to ensure that they do not arise in the first place.

On social security, he spoke, as other Labour figures have done, of strengthening the contributory principle, so that there is a clearer relationship between what people put in and what they get out. The hope is that this would revive public confidence in the welfare state and Wood also pointed out that contributory and universal systems had proved less vulnerable to cuts than those based on means-testing. As I noted in my recent piece on why Labour must defend universal pensioner benefits, history shows that a narrower welfare state soon becomes a shallower one as the politically powerful middle classes lose any stake in the system and the poor are stigmatised as "dependent". The "paradox of redistribution", as social scientists call it, is that provision for some depends on provision for all.

Wood concluded by discussing the three main challenges facing one nation Labour: the fiscal constraints imposed by a lack of growth; building new institutions and restoring faith in politics. The biggest obstacle to change, he said, was not hostility to Labour but the belief that politicians were "all the same" and that "none of you can change anything". He observed that while the right "thrives on the pessimism that nothing can change", the left is "starved of oxygen". The greatest challenge for Labour, then, is to attack the coalition's failures while simultaneously persuading voters that they were far from inevitable. 

Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.