To make a real breakthrough – a party must take the whole country to its heart

November 23, 2012 1:08 pm

By Francis Davis

With the Tory left in crisis Ed Milliband parked his ‘faith’ over the noble lawns of a tradition once defended by giants such as Chris Patten, David Hunt, and Michael Heseltine. For the Osborne-Gove backed leap to the right has left a fresh seam of votes free to be mined if only the Labour leader can avoid being dragged back to the self-referential comfort of many activists’ prejudices.

The classical ‘One nation’ tradition has rich antecedents.  It celebrates all of Scotland, the North West, cities and villages; Wales, the South and the West instead of voting blocs rooted in North-South ghettoes, or dependent on metropolitan bureaucratic capture.  Strong on pro-poor social policy it takes business seriously. Unafraid to use entrepreneurial state power it sees government and market centralisations as enemies of innovation and inclusion. It rejects discrimination on the grounds of race, disability or religion. It looks then to shift party and national culture at a time of economic emergency rather than pander to their darkest strands.

Building on his success Milliband can now develop a ‘one nation’ economic policy stamped with his own authority.  The traditionalism of Labour’s most centralising traditions which reach for bureaucratic targets as deftly as they  ignore local and institutional variation can have no part to play in that future.   As principled as the old Labour right have been, their Whitehall dominated, credit fuelled, moral project is exhausted in the face of contemporary complexity.  In a world where cities compete with cities as actively as nations compete with nations  workers, councillors, entrepreneurs, nurses, minorities  and the unemployed  share a new consensus namely that smart technocrats in far away capitals  understand nothing of  their struggles. And understanding nothing they need to be decentralised and replaced.

Local growth can have traction. In 2010 Labour was understandably suspicious of the Coalition’s offer to the eight largest cities outside London of ‘deals’ to devolve economic powers on a bespoke basis. Not even the Tories had noticed at that stage that most of their own local authorities thought they could do a better job than DWP and BIS in getting people back to work. By contrast some Labour figures saw an opportunity and attracted new resources to their cities.  But by this summer Labour’s caution had thawed.  Local Labour leaders as well as others wanted to take skills, green and housing progress further than any mandarin could imagine.  The queue of businesses, conurbations, counties and rural districts demanding such devolution leapt.  Against all odds it seemed as though a new shared view had cracked open although its final form was still disputed.

Developing even more radical ideas for carefully chosen decentralisations then – especially in marginals  – could have even more beneficial effects: They could break the Coalition’s misguided separation of economic and social welfare.  They could push the logic of the ‘Total Place’ programme developed before 2010 more radically and inclusively than the Coalition has managed so far. Such ‘one nation deals’ could reward those seeking to build cross-class, cross-sector collaborations. They could kitemark institutions that pioneer progressive approaches that go further than just a ‘living wage’.  And they could fight the myth of an economic trickle down so as to mitigate post code lotteries.

‘One nation’ renewal will also mean challenging a raft of institutions to modernise who might otherwise expect to be left to their conservatism.  Key here will be once again being able to explain to a 55 year old sacked car worker why his hierarchical, demarcating, all-women short-listing, national agreement protecting, motion-passing, ever-merging, globally affiliated  trade union never prepared him for life after  the closure of the local plant but still considers itself a vanguard of progress and advocacy. Meanwhile, as Milliband has said, there is more to be done regarding the failure of society and the mass produced welfare state to address the deep inequality and open discrimination faced by those citizens and their carers encountering severe (or even moderate) mental ill health: One Nation radicalism should take seriously needs, however silent, which devastate the ramparts of homes and castles in every county.

A short article such as this cannot replace the intellectual heavy-lifting that now needs to be driven forward at pace. But the seam that Ed Milliband has opened in the last few weeks could become a doorway of welcome through which many sometime Conservative voters may pass. For as every genuinely ‘one nation’ politician has known for decades, and perhaps Milliband now senses, to make a real breakthrough  a party must take the whole country to its heart and not just those like itself .

Francis Davis is a Fellow at Res Publica

This piece was commissioned as part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList

  • NT86

    What’s the “Tory left”? Surely they’re moderates or modern day wets.

  • Serbitar

    Before taking anything or anybody to its heart a party first needs a beating heart pumping lifeblood through the body politic. Tragically, it seems to me, Labour’s pulse faltered, fluttered, and fell quiet some time ago.

Latest

  • Comment We want to build relationships with Labour – but they need to take some bold steps

    We want to build relationships with Labour – but they need to take some bold steps

    First my credentials. I have supported Labour at every election since I was old enough to vote. I am a party member of some 30 years standing. Why then, as the General Secretary of the trade union for staff in further and higher education am I in such utter despair at the timidity of the policy offer made by Labour to the members I represent and their students? Let’s be clear, I believe the coalition’s policies have been a disaster […]

    Read more →
  • News I was “never ever complicit” in illegal rendition or torture, says Jack Straw

    I was “never ever complicit” in illegal rendition or torture, says Jack Straw

    Jack Straw has condemned the use of torture and denied being complicit in the torture of suspected terrorists, following the publication of a report in America concerning the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs). Straw was Labour’s Foreign Secretary from 2001 to 2006, during the foremost years of the “War on Terror” and the UK’s military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Questions have been raised concerning what members of the British government knew about the use of EITs, but […]

    Read more →
  • Comment How not to change the constitution

    How not to change the constitution

    In this Parliament AV was rejected, Lords reform stumbled and even the Tories attempt to ‘equalise’ constituencies fell. ‘The Implications of Devolution for England’ already looks unhealthily like these other failed constitutional reforms. Nonetheless, the issue holds real dangers for Labour. Hague’s partisan and divisive Commons statement showed the Tories’ more concerned to maximise difference than to bring people together for the good of England. Yet even this couldn’t disguise Conservative divisions. In three months his Cabinet Committee failed to […]

    Read more →
  • News “Our choice is the country’s choice” – Lisa Nandy’s LabourList Christmas Lecture

    “Our choice is the country’s choice” – Lisa Nandy’s LabourList Christmas Lecture

    On Monday evening Lisa Nandy MP gave the LabourList Christmas Lecture to launch her pamphlet “Our Labour Our Communities” – you can download the pamphlet here. Here’s the text of that lecture: We’ve got five months to go until the most important General Election in a generation. And over the last year, as I’ve spent time with Labour candidates meeting and listening to people in communities as diverse as Brighton, Norwich and Calder Valley it seems to me the overwhelming […]

    Read more →
  • News Polling New Ashcroft polls shows the point where the Labour gains stop coming

    New Ashcroft polls shows the point where the Labour gains stop coming

    The latest batch of marginals polling carried out by Lord Ashcroft has been published today, and it does not bring many glad tidings for Labour. The polling covers four Labour seats: Dudley North, Great Grimsby, Plymouth Moor View and Rother Valley; eight Conservative seats: Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire, Ealing Central & Acton, Elmet & Rothwell, Harrow East, Pendle, South Swindon, Stevenage, and Warwick & Leamington; and one Green Party seat: Brighton Pavilion. All of the Conservative held seats, bar Warwick & […]

    Read more →