Last week we had the theatre. Ed Miliband live and unplugged with no notes. 44 references to One Nation. It was impressive, and it had the makings of a coherent political strategy, but it wasn’t subtle.
It was a Disraeli-stealing, centre-ground assuming, Tory attack piece. And this week we will get to see what it’s really for – a “big red dividing line” than even Gordon Brown would be proud of. It’s intended to cleave the Tory party in two, whilst also showing the country how far from the centre the government are – thus shifting the debate around where the centre of British politics really is.
The argument goes that Labour is the One Nation party – geographically, economically and socially. We are the party for the whole country. The Tories, by way of contrast, are sectional and divisive. They are for the rich, the south, the haves but certainly not the have nots. But that’s all terribly simplistic – the Labour strategy on this goes much further and deeper than the usual trite attack lines.
A few days ago “Ed Miliband’s brain” Lord Wood wrote about The Crisis of Conservativism. And did for for the Daily Telegraph – intended as a dagger to the heart of the Tory faithful on their way to Birmingham. In short, Wood’s argument was that the Tory Party is withering away, beholden to a group within the party who practice “libertarian fanaticism”. But this is no fly by night theory from the Labour leadership. Even before conference, and the advent of One Nation Labour, Jon Cruddas was lambasting the Tories as “sinking, devoid of pragmatism” in a review of “Britannia Unchained”. And let’s be honest – if “libertarian fanaticism” had a textbook, then Unchained would be a decent first edition.
These people mean to tear apart many of the institutions which boost and support the social fabric of Britain. And so, if they get their way, it will be left to the Labour Party to be the defenders of a kind of conservatism.
Cue sharp intake of breath.
But note the small c. The kind of conservatism that is concerned with conserving (the clue’s in the name) and protecting what is good in our (one) nation. The party that argues that we ARE “in this together” – but only if we pull together, pay our fare share and pitch in to the national project.
In truth it is not only Labour who sees this crisis in conservatism. Many in the Tory Party also see the risks of succumbing to the libertarian fringe. They see that the biggest black mark against the Tory name is that of the uncaring, out of touch slasher. They cherish the idea of “compassionate conservatism”. And yet, if you ask the Great British public today what c-word they associate with the Tories, I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t be “compassionate”.
“Britain deserves better than this lot”. That has been the unofficial slogan of every British opposition since the dawn of politics. It is no different now. And that’s exactly what all of this “One Nation” stuff is about, at its core. The Tories have abandoned much of their heritage to chase a niche and ideological wish list. It’s sad for the British people that they’ve done so, but they have. So Labour will pick it up, wear some of their clothes, and try – without saying so – to move politics to the left, by using the language of the right. All while saying that it is the Tories who are trying to drag the centre ground away from the British people.
Cloaked by the language of unity, politics just got polar again. And maybe – just maybe – more interesting for that.
There’s a busy few days ahead of us.