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.

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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times