One Nation Politics in Practice

13th November, 2012 3:57 pm

A crisis in Britain’s institutions is driving popular frustration at everyone with power, from bankers to newspapers to politicians. From duck ponds to the economic downturn, we’ve allowed small groups to look after their own interests without being held to account by the people their lives impact.

One Nation Labour is our response to that crisis. It isn’t just an electoral strategy. It has the potential to be something far more radical. If it develops strong relationships with the public sector and business, trade unions and voluntary associations, it can fundamentally change the way we think and act towards the world around us, to mark as great a transformation in our ethics and practice as the Conservative governments of the 1980s.

Thatcherism treated people as calculating consumers who weighed the short-term costs and benefits of every action (including voting) for themselves. It’s the way of interacting with the world that created the crash. That attitude still infects our political and economic institutions. It saturates our current mode of retail politics. Politics has become the science of ‘delivering’ of packages and projects for individual consumers instead of the art of discovering what we can do together.

Instead, One Nation Labour recognises that our interests and aspirations are bound up with our reciprocal obligations to those around us. Institutions work best when people are driven by a sense of common purpose. But the motivation to work together can’t be imposed from above. It takes conversation, argument and negotiation between people who share their everyday lives.

A One Nation politics takes aspiration seriously. But it notices that aspiration starts with our relationships with people we care about: family and neighbourhood, our town or city, community and country as well as our selves. It’s about the way self-interest is entangled within the reciprocal obligations we have to the people around us.

To put that into practice, One Nation Labour needs to focus on changing our institutions, our businesses large and small, our schools, hospitals, job centres, the places where people get together to work, consume and care so they’re driven by that sense of reciprocal obligation. How do we do that? What does One Nation Labour mean in practice?

First, it means ordinary people having a more powerful voice in the way our private businesses and public institutions are run. That will create tension, of course. We need to recognize that people have different interests, but let the argument happen. If consumers had more say in the way their banks are run, the financial crisis might not have happened. The best schools are those where parents constantly challenge.

In practice, that means insisting workers and users are represented on the boards of companies and public institutions. Ensuring parents make up a third of the governing body of all schools would be a good start. The voice of workers and users needs organizing, with a role for Trade Unions, professional associations and user organisations. We could encourage the formation of parents unions, for example.

Joint ownership by workers and consumers would give people more of a stake. We should encourage the mutualisation of public and private institutions, but make sure they’re run by a conversation between different interests not just run by one group.

Second, we need a renewal of authority within our institutions. It isn’t about everyone being able to decide everything. We need to be able to trust the people in charge. But authority isn’t just the power to regulate or command. It comes from a leaders’ obligation towards the people they lead, on recognizing the important role of workers and users in providing challenge.

We need to nurture a form of leadership that is more democratic. That might mean public events where leaders are asked to account for themselves before the public whose lives are affected by their decisions; something like London Citizens’ accountability assemblies, for example. To be really radical, we might elect leaders head-teachers and hospital managers as well as company bosses at assemblies in which different interests are represented.

Thirdly though, institutions can only listen, look outwards, and lead the communities they are part of if they’re free to make their own decisions, and aren’t constantly looking over their shoulder for the latest guidelines or government regulation. Our institutions can only nurture a sense of mutual obligation if the power of Whitehall to coerce and cajole is limited. Yes, government needs to set standards and impose rules. But when it does it should insist on things that really matter and make sure rules are only made after proper argument. Labour needs to be the party of deregulation, not the bossy bureaucrat. But it only can be that if the voice of people replaces central directives as the means institutions are held to account.

One Nation politics is more than a slogan and a set of policies. It marks a change in political style. It starts by being more comfortable with the tensions that come when people have a say over the institutions that rule their lives. It recognizes the plurality of Britain, but has faith in the capacity of people to forge a sense of shared purpose and create the common good from the argument.

Jon Wilson is a historian at King’s College London and author of Letting Go. How Labour Can Learn to Stop Worrying and the Trust the People, published by the Fabian Society

This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList

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  • Dear Jon

    Wouldn’t the case for One Nation Labour be helped if the leadership demonstrated more trust in Labour members, as well as people in general?

    Peter Kenyon
    secretary, City of London Labour Party

  • Mr Arthur Cook

    The Labour leadership is locked into an outdated defensive mindset.
    “We must distance ourselves from the unions” despite 6 million members and their families because the Dail Mail will use it to attack us.
    “We must condemn strikes” despite the fact that these are not local trades disputes but mass protests, with popular support and are the only voice ordinary people are allowed now that Labour sits in silence wringing it’s hands fearful of “looking socialist”.
    The party has not noticed that the tide has changed.
    The privatization and marketization agenda which was started by Thatcher and continued by Blair has turned into what the UK population now see as a corrupt, multinational free for all. Nationalisation of rail and energy would now draw the votes of the commuting middle classes and those who are left to pay for gas and electricity out of shrinking wage packets.
    But there is little real prospect that Labour will anything other than sit on it’s hands hoping that they will win by default. That may not turn out as the party wishes. And if it does, and Labour regains power……………..what would they do with it? Leave it until the day after the election and then start making it up as they go along?

  • David B

    The crash happened because the economy was blowen into a buble by to much cheap money, poor regulation and a government unwill to listen to those that did not agree with them

    Your one nation idea is about aspiration, but the current labour leadership practices class war. One nation accepts parents will do everything to help their children

  • AlanGiles

    ” One Nation Labour needs to focus on changing our institutions, our
    businesses large and small, our schools, hospitals, job centres, the
    places where people get together to work, consume and care so they’re
    driven by that sense of reciprocal obligation”

    It should also mean that politicians have obligations which they fulfill, or else accept proper punishment for. I listened on the air today with increasing anger and disbelief as that revolting Margaret Moran woman, found guilty of numerous cases of fraud andf false accounting, will not be punished because she is mentally ill. Apparently. Yet she wasn’t so ill that she could appear on The World At one (Radio 4) expressing her anger over having been found guilty.

    We all know she is guilty – the jury who heard all the evidence confirmed what we already knew, yet Moran’s worst punishment will be to be given compulsory treatment in a mental hospital, a supervision order or – and this seems most likely – an absolute discharge.

    Yes we do need to change institutions. This is a typical example. If Moran had been a single mother or a road-sweeper convicted of fraud, she would have, at some point, been made to appear in court to face the charges, however “ill” she claims to be.

    Moran certainly didn’t sound ill when mouthing off with her faux outrage on Radio 4 today. She didn’t even have to go to court. You get the feeling that MPs are immune to the law, and all this “one nation” waffle doesn’t disguise the fact that there is one law for greedy and idiotic MPs and ex-MPs and another for the rest of us.

    • franwhi

      I’m with you. There is a horrible sense of assumption and entitlement in this country which finds expression in the way the elite – be they politicians, media people or corporate and financial leaders – seem to be able to work the system to suit themselves and hide from the rule of law. While Labour List always makes great play of blunders by the Lord Snooty’s and Bullingdon posh boys there are plenty in the people’s party who use patronage, croneyism and informal networks to gain unfair advantage for them and theirs, to evade scrutiny when asked to be accountable and to minimise and spin wrongdoing and criminality when they are caught red-handed. I’m not a vengeful person and do believe people can redeem themselves but surely first they have to accept and show remorse for wrongdoing. However, when you see odious peple like Moran try to duck responsibility you really just hope the justice system throws the book at her. No way should she be aloud a public platform to mount a defence of the indefensible and that restriction should be part of any disposal of sentence.

    • MonkeyBot5000

      You get the feeling that MPs are immune to the law…

      We don’t just get the feeling, we see the evidence. Moran is a shameless thief and no-one in the Labour party is willing to say it. I’ll never be able to take a politician seriously when people can get away with fraudulently claiming more than I earn in an entire year and not be punished.

      I genuinely wish I could hate her to death.

      • AlanGiles

        I could never wish anyone dead, not even people I despise, but with the wonders of modern medicine, I am sure one day Moran will be “cured” of her illness, and she should then serve a custodial sentence for a few months to help her learn the error of her ways.

        The woman is devoid of shame or self-respect – if she is so certain she is innocent she should have been in court to answer questions.

        I am sure Mr McShane and his legal advisers looked at this case with great interest. If Denis, after false accounting and creating invoices to himself, IS ever charged, no doubt, he too, will come down with this terrible incurable “illness” as well.

        You are quite right. I said “get the feeling”, but yes – you do know – even with “One Nation” Labour that there will always be a two tier system.

        I would suggest any bank-robber, confidence trickster, mugger, or violent thug who get his collar felt today should try for the “Moran defence” and see if they can get away with it.

  • I like the themes and language of this article in the way I have liked all the articles I have read in this One Nation series.

    Nevertheless, each article I have read has skirted very precisely around the big questions about the Labour Party itself. Jon Wilson here talks of institutions, but neglects to confront Labour itself and the ways we ourselves need to open up and open out. At the moment so much effort goes into fighting within for self- and group-interest. A One Nation party needs to transcend that to a large extent, but we will not be able to do that without breaking down the politics of preference and patronage that bedevills our internal workings and makes them sclerotic in terms of overarching themes and narrative.

    I am talking here partly of the unions (which are a crucial element of any democratic society) but also about other groupings that are institutionalised into the fabric of the party and operate as power blocs with sectional patronage rights, like the Labour Women’s Network. These sub-institutions operate as parties within the party. I think we really need to be united and subject our power plays to the power of democracy rather than group representation.

    I wrote the following article for Shifting Grounds reflecting on the Olympics, and especially the Opening Ceremony in relation to the One Nation theme. The basic theme is about harnessing the spirit that inspired so many of us in the summer, which was about inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness. On the Left, unfortunately, we revert far too often to the latter.

  • Daniel Speight

    As you can see in the other comments there is a problem of at least perception in the Parliamentary Labour Party. So when you say:

    …we’ve allowed small groups to look after their own interests without being held to account by the people their lives impact.

    Let’s start with ourselves. How can the behaviour of our MPs be improved? Why are candidates imposed from above? Why should a safe seat be a seat for life for the lucky MP?

    Why shouldn’t the sitting MP face reselection before every election? Give the power to the local parties to do this. Militant is long gone and the danger of entryism is more from Progress than anyone of the left.

    Being an MP shouldn’t be considered a career by our apparatchiks. That’s why they have to stand for election. The recent happenings in Rotherham can only drive voters towards the extremes like Ukip and Respect.

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