Labour recognises that it can't build a One Nation country alone

We understand that governments, on their own, cannot fix everything. Families and communities, businesses and trade unions, civic society, and elected leaders at every level must play their part.

Most of those gathered to hear Ed Miliband’s speech at the Labour Party conference in 2012 recognised that under his leadership the party had become an effective and united opposition. They also knew that fresh scandals over top pay, consumer rip-offs and banking sharp practices had vindicated his call for a more responsible capitalism, and that his analysis of the problems facing the squeezed middle and the need for deep reforms in the economy had struck a chord with millions of voters.

But it is only fair to say that some of those present last year in Manchester had doubts about how Ed could draw all this together into an overarching political project.

Those doubts were swiftly dispelled by an extraordinary speech, delivered without notes. Ed Miliband rose to the challenge, as he had done in the past. The theme of his speech, a closely guarded secret until he stood up, was a vision for rebuilding Britain as One Nation: "A country where everyone has a stake; a country where prosperity is fairly shared; where we have a shared destiny, a sense of shared endeavour and a common life that we lead together."

This was not just an audacious land-grab of a phrase once associated with a more compassionate era of Conservative government. Nor was he describing some impossible dream. Instead, the speech addressed, full on, the challenges facing Britain today. 

"Here is the genius of One Nation", he told the Conference:

"It doesn’t just tell us the country we can be. It tells us how we must rebuild. We won the war because we were One Nation. We built the peace because Labour governments and Conservative understood we needed to be One Nation. Every time Britain has faced its gravest challenge, we have only come through the storm because we were One Nation … To overcome the challenges we face, we must rediscover that spirit. That spirit the British people never forgot. That spirit of One Nation."

Since that speech, Ed Miliband and the shadow cabinet have been setting out what this means for our economy, our society, and our politics: a recovery made by and for the many, not the few; a society in which everyone has the opportunity, and the responsibility, to take part; and a party and a democracy that is open to everyone, not the preserve of closed circles or a narrow elite.

The building blocks of One Nation include not only new policies but also a radical process of party reform. Labour is renewing itself as a movement and helping to give a voice to people from every part of Britain and every walk of life. These changes will underpin the next Labour government, so that we can work with citizens, communities, businesses and civil society to meet together the challenges we face together.

Labour has already set out a series of radical new proposals that show how a One Nation government could begin rebuilding Britain, together with the people of our country: policies to get our banks working for our businesses, and our businesses fulfilling their responsibilities to their customers and employees; policies to ensure our public services give young people a fair chance to play their part and our elderly population the dignity and care they deserve; policies for the redesign of our tax and social security system so that everyone pays their fair share and responsibility goes all the way from the bottom to the top; policies to reform and renew our politics so that we can begin to reverse the disaffection and hopelessness that discourages too many from taking part. And of course the Labour Party will have more to say about all this and more before the next election.

The One Nation book we have edited is not about policy, or a blueprint for political reform. Instead, it shows how our policy programme and our campaign for the chance to implement it in government are anchored in people’s everyday lives, experiences, aspirations and struggles. Our values are vividly present in so many of the personal stories and local histories that make up our country. The brilliant, resilient and resourceful people and communities of Britain are ready and eager to play their part in rebuilding our country as One Nation.

But there is also a humility in the vision of One Nation. We understand that governments, on their own, cannot fix everything. This humility, though born in opposition, will continue when we are in government. We know that Labour will not be able to deliver the change Britain needs unless we make it a common endeavour – unless we work with families and communities, businesses and trade unions, civic society and elected leaders at every level. The fundamental renewal of Labour’s values, organisation, and approach to politics and social change, is the most important and transformative part of Ed Miliband’s project.

This is an extract from the introduction to the new book One Nation: Power, Hope, Community

Rachel Reeves is shadow chief secretary to the Treasury and MP for Leeds West

Owen Smith is shadow Welsh secretary and MP for Pontypridd

Workmen fix a Labour Party Conference banner to a fence outside the conference centre on September 21, 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rachel Reeves is shadow chief secretary to the Treasury and MP for Leeds West

Owen Smith is shadow Welsh secretary and MP for Pontypridd

Getty Images.
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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.