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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