Ed Miliband’s conference speech yesterday was everything it needed to be. Bold, engaging, heartfelt and delivered with a touch of class.
But it did far more than just tick boxes. After two years Ed finally answered Labour’s most pressing question: what follows New Labour?
One Nation isn’t just another flowery term. It’s a solid line of thought which has been circulating within the party for a while. It’s the answer for those who firstly reject New Labour as too accepting of neo-liberal economics whilst barely mentioning society or community; who, secondly, also dread the return to an unelectable and deeply regressive Old Labour; and thirdly, feel uneasy at the toxic ‘blue Labour’ brand which, for many, has been presented as too populist.
Ed spoke brilliantly about the need for a united nation in these tough times; a nation that works together to pull through with everyone playing their part.
On benefits: “It is incredibly important… to show compassion and support for all those who cannot work… particularly the disabled men and women of our country. But in order to do so – those who can work have a responsibility to do so… we’ve got a responsibility to help them and they’ve got a responsibility to take the work that is on offer.”
On banks: “We need banks that serve the country. We can do this the easy way or the hard way, either you fix it yourselves between now and the election, or the next Labour government will ensure that the high street bank is no longer in the arm of a casino operation…”
But Ed only had an hour, and there’s plenty more to the One Nation philosophy…
Crucially, One Nation must recognise that most everyday people – and by everyday people I mean the 99% who are far away from our geeky political debates, who work 9-5 supporting their families and would rather watch soaps or documentaries each evening, rather than scour the internet for Disraeli trivia – are socially conservative.
And no, by socially conservative I don’t mean racist, sexist or homophobic. I mean they value gradual change over social upheaval; they want what’s best for their family; they want tranquillity over conflict; they have no time for the Marxism that some Labour thinkers still seem to think forms the bedrock of the party’s working class support.
There’s nothing wrong with this, and this is the lesson liberal left intellectuals must respect. There’s nothing wrong with having little or no interest in learning about politics. I put it to you that most politicians would struggle to wire a plug, let alone teach a class of screaming kids or put out a fire.
Too often preaching lefty politicians and commentators scream about injustice, about poverty, about how the education system is inadequate, sneer at those deemed less moralistic and turn their noses up at people who don’t hold their Marxist views. In other words, they’ll defend those whom the education system has failed – but only if they happen to turn out socialist.
John Cruddas’ comments at the weekend represented an essential step towards displacing this intellectual snobbery from the heart of the party. “I have mates who are BNP and UKIP and Tory. I don’t surround myself with Labour members who have the same views as me,” he said. This came after a previous warning that “the BNP thrive in areas where people feel forgotten by the mainstream parties.”
Reaching out to those who are cut off from the social mainstream is an important part of the One Nation agenda and a part that Cruddas must address as he undertakes his policy review.
These issues haven’t been ignored within the party; the problem is that leading Labour figures failed to talk about community and identity for so long. An exchange between David Lammy and Gordon Brown – where Lammy told Brown of a constituent’s concern about family issues and knife crime and Brown responded with “tell them we have got tax credits” – typified New Labour’s biggest flaw; its obsession with money and a laissez faire attitude towards social trends.
Equally, the use of the phrase ‘One Nation’ wasn’t dreamt up this week, either. Ivan Lewis’ chapter ‘One Nation Labour’ in the Purple Book, written over a year ago, was the forerunner in recognising the need to reach out to voters who no longer had faith in a Labour party which appeared to be neglecting, or outright rejecting, their concerns.
Here, Lewis discussed the need embrace the positive elements of the ‘big society’ – the community groups, for instance, which give people a sense of identity and belonging when they may otherwise feel insecure and pessimistic about their future. He also suggested a ‘Prevent’ strategy to help vulnerable teenagers at risk of being targeted by right-wing or religious extremist groups.
An important part of the One Nation agenda must be the need to accept that integration, or ‘interculturalism’ represents the next step for a tolerant and diverse Britain. A society which deems segregated communities acceptable is not progressive – more must be done to help different communities interact. Schemes such as the National Citizens Service must be rolled out to ensure that children from different economic and cultural backgrounds spend time together throughout their education. Strengthening bonds between and within communities is crucial for our society.
National identity is also key to the One Nation Labour agenda. I’ve outlined the need to utilise patriotism in a social democratic sense to communicate the idea of rights and responsibility in a recent piece for LabourList so I won’t tread over old ground. It’s important to say, however, that the language of patriotism is essential to the success of the project and the two Eds will need be consistent in emphasising Labour’s patriotism over the next two and a half years. For instance, regular attacks on those channelling money through offshore tax havens must run alongside the lines on work and welfare in Ed’s speech.
So One Nation Labour is not just an electoral ploy or gimmick. It’s inherently progressive. It’s the Labour that was always destined to follow New Labour, so long as a visionary had the reins. With Ed we have that visionary. He’s held backed listened to those around him and chosen the right path. Hats off to Ed Miliband and here’s to One Nation Labour.
Joe Jervis works on the Guardian social enterprise network, has worked with social policy think-tank Demos and tweets @joejervis89