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“One nation” means “no ideas”

Miliband's new theme of “one nation” has one job – to give him an excuse not to make decisions.

On 12 January, the Fabian general secretary, Andrew Harrop, wrote an article in the Guardian to coincide with his organisation’s annual conference. “Despite its lead in the polls, there is something hollow in Labour’s resurgence,” he warned. “A radical policy road map is needed.” The piece carried the bold headline “Labour can’t leave it any longer to come up with some big ideas”. Sadly, at least one person attending the conference hadn’t read it: Ed Miliband, who delivered the keynote address.

Miliband’s speech was arguably the worst he has delivered since he was elected Labour leader in 2010. It was vacuous, repetitive and clichéd. Presented as one that would start to put flesh on the bones of the “one nation” theme, it took those bones and tossed them to the winds instead.

The “big announcement” was a commitment to a landlords’ register that had already appeared on page 22 of the 2010 manifesto. New Labour, for the umpteenth time, was disinterred and then reburied. Rather than starting to develop a narrative of what “one nation” actually is, Miliband simply repeated the phrase, parrot-like, 30 times.

The closest he came to defining it was when he described it as “an idea rooted deep in British history. Because it is rooted deep in the soul of the British people. Deep in the daily way we go about our lives.” Sorry, that’s not a political speech; it’s a Mills & Boon blurb.

Rereading the full text of the speech a day later confirmed a suspicion I’ve had ever since I saw him unveil the slogan back in October. “One nation” is not, as many believe, a work in progress but the end of a journey. If you recall, Miliband began with the “squeezed middle”, which won him many plaudits. Yet he was uncomfortable with it because, by definition, it excluded those at the bottom as well as those at the top. So that slogan was replaced by “the 99 per cent”. But even this smacked a bit too much of “us and them”.

Finishing touches

“One nation” has one job – to give Miliband an excuse not to make decisions. It’s not about choosing between north or south, rich or poor, young or old. It’s all about being one nation. Hence the discovery of the “forgotten wealth creators”. Soon to be followed, no doubt, by the “one-nation bankers”.

People are going to have to realise that this is basically it. Miliband is not going to jump up in 18 months’ time, shout, “Wahoo! Here you go! Get a load of these bad boys!” and unveil an exciting raft of new policies. There will be a tweak here, a commitment to a review there and lots and lots of “guiding principles”. And then Labour will, in effect, reprint its 2010 manifesto.

Labour’s policy vacuum isn’t part of some tactical masterplan to outwit the Tories. It’s there because Labour doesn’t have any policies. One of the great myths being peddled is: “No opposition unveils its manifesto at this stage in the political cycle.” The reality is that Labour was producing a steady drip of new and bold policies well in advance of its 1997 election landslide.

There was Jon Prescott’s PPP program for new rail infrastructure, followed by PFI for new schools and hospitals. The commitment to a national minimum wage. Devolution for Scotland. The abolition of hereditary peers. The Windfall Levy on the private utilities. An elected Mayor for London. Incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights. A commitment to the European Social Chapter. And, of course, the commitment to stick to Tory spending limits.

With the exception of the spending limit commitment, all of these were long standing Labour policies by the time of the election, and all had been announced well before manifesto was printed. In fact, in 1996, Labour actually published  a “pre-manifesto” entitled “New Labour, New Life for Britain”.  

In the two and a half years since the last election, Labour has unveiled no new policy on welfare. Or deficit reduction. Or education. Or crime. Or Europe. Only on immigration, where Jon Cruddas’s politics of identity agenda is finally making some headway, are there even hints of substantive movement. And even here, it is likely that Yvette Cooper will be left to do the heavy lifting.

Trust me, Miliband is not beginning to unveil one nation. He is applying the finishing touches.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.