So long, slogan: whatever happened to One Nation?

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Ed Miliband used the slogan “One Nation” in his keynote speech to Labour party conference two years ago 46 times, the New Statesman counted.

It was supposed to be more than just a slogan. It was intended to be an all-encompassing idea to frame Labour’s vision for the future. But a couple of years on, it’s been completely dropped from the party’s narrative.

I’ve managed only to spot one reference to “One Nation” in this year’s conference fringe guide. Indeed, it’s difficult to discern any sort of lively catchphrase from Labour this year, other than “Labour’s plan for Britain’s future” – more like a manifesto title than a slogan.

I’ve noticed the phrase dwindling from Labour’s narrative for some time, so I asked deputy party leader Harriet Harman where it’s gone and whether the party would be using it again this year. She swerved around the question:

Well, I think that Ed's been very clear that to have legitimacy, a government needs to represent people in all different parts of the country. And that's what the Tories to their discredit have failed to do.

She then directed me to “the Choice” speeches Labour MPs have been making over the summer.

It’s clear the slogan – like so many others in Labour’s recent canon (remember “Hardworking Britain Better Off” and “Britain can do better than this”?) – has gone to the place where buzzwords go to die.

Why?

One of my favourite mischievous questions to Labour politicians over the past year or so has been: “how does 'One Nation’ play on the doorstep?” It’s clear from their replies – however diplomatic – that ordinary voters don’t connect with politicians voicing this idea associated with Benjamin Disraeli and the Tories.

Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, was forthright about it, telling me earlier this year:

Some [slogans] have a shelf-life, others don’t… so ‘Cost of Living Crisis’ is probably coming to the end of its sell-by-date, isn’t it? People get turned off by it. I read the other day ‘One Nation Social Security’ – what the hell is that? Andrew Neil asked me on the Daily Politics about ‘One Nation Banking’. ‘One Nation Banking’? For goodness sake! If I went round talking like that on the doorstep, I’d get short shrift. You’d see doors being slammed in your face.

Where the slogan is connected to policy, I think it has more resonance... One Nation isn’t tied to anything is it? It was a great speech for the time, but it’s overused, hackneyed… I don’t think the Tories use them very much, not like us they don’t…

Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, was, if possible, even more dismissive of the use of the slogan when I asked him about it:

It’s not understood, and I can’t see why you’d adopt it. I mean, they trialled it out to receive any reaction from people, and just a blank, open mouthed ‘huh?’ was the best you could get. . . ‘We are One Nation’? And what the fuck does that mean? I’m sure that’s how people feel about it –it doesn’t mean a thing does it?

And more measured MPs loyal to the leadership were also reticent about how effective "One Nation" is. Shadow BIS minister Stella Creasy admitted, “if you ever met people from Walthamstow you wouldn’t tell them anything like that because they’d quite quickly put you in your place.” And shadow cabinet office minister Chi Onwurah told me recently, “it depends on which slogan [works on the doorstep]”, and that out of Labour’s slogans, “Cost of Living Crisis does, let me tell you that. Cost of Living Crisis does”.

A shadow cabinet aide tells me that One Nation, while going down very well in 2012, “didn't really manage to tell a story”, and that when it was used in bizarre contexts like “One Nation cycling”, it didn’t resonate.

However, the slogan “Cost of Living Crisis” is still going strong among Labourites, who undoubtedly have more of a positive attitude towards that message. And yet, as another party adviser pointed out to me, Miliband now needs to “convert” his slogans into a cohesive narrative about inequality, something his messaging hasn’t quite managed to do so far.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.