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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".

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

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.