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