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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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide