While the interest of Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour derives in part from the ground it appropriates from Benjamin Disraeli and the Conservative tradition, One Nation also draws on the language of social patriotism pioneered by progressive trailblazers like William Gladstone, Clement Attlee, William Beveridge and, across the pond, Franklin D Roosevelt. These great reformers often spoke in populist and patriotic terms, seeking to mobilise low and middle income citizens against irresponsible elites.
It is this second aspect of Miliband’s One Nation rhetoric that opens up the space for a serious debate about the responsibilities of those at the top, drawing on a Gladstonian contrast between ‘the masses and the classes’. This was a subject that New Labour famously found it very difficult to talk about. Many of the key figures involved in Labour’s electoral rebirth in the 1990s were nervous about associating the party with what they regarded as antediluvian rhetorical fireworks unsuited to the politics of the 21st century. So can this aspect of One Nation work today?
The re-election of Barack Obama provides an answer. Obama’s successful pitch to voters in the United States was grounded on economic populism and social patriotism. Starting with his powerful speech on inequality at Osawatomie, Kansas, at the end of 2011, Obama defined his agenda as a defence of the prosperity of the broad majority against special interests seeking to protect only the rich. The unfairness of the low taxes on the wealthy, as favoured by the Republicans, provided a striking illustration of what Obama said he was up against:
‘This isn’t about class warfare. This is about the nation’s welfare. It’s about making choices that benefit not just the people who’ve done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefit the middle class, and those fighting to get into the middle class, and the economy as a whole.’
The success of the United States, Obama argued, was greatest:
‘when everyone gets a fair shot, where everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values.’
In the face of repeated accusations from the right that he disavowed American exceptionalism, Obama responded by administering a dose of social patriotism. American greatness, he said, rested on mutual obligation and a commitment to improving the life chances of the majority rather than an elite few.
Obama’s success with this line of attack suggests that the economic debate in the wake of the financial crisis can plausibly be led from a populist and patriotic direction. At a time of squeezed living standards, questions of distributional fairness have become more salient than in the boom years. In such circumstances, a right-wing agenda of tax cuts for the wealthiest and increased economic insecurity for everyone else can, with the right rhetorical touch, be portrayed as elitist and even anti-aspirational.
But it is important not to apply too heavy a rhetorical touch. As Nick Pearce has pointed out, the danger of this line of argument is that, if it is expressed too coarsely, it can turn into (or be presented as) a more general attack on business rather than a specific charge about irresponsible behaviour at the top. It is therefore critical to calibrate precisely the use of populist language. Obama’s argument was that the same rules should apply to everyone and that the wealthy and corporate interests shouldn’t claim special privileges, not that business in general was at fault. His searing attacks on the Republicans for seeking to lower taxes on the wealthy were buttressed by encomiums about small businesses and important business leaders who agreed with Obama’s approach.
A well-calibrated populist and patriotic electoral appeal along these lines could play an important part in Labour’s argument in the run-up to the 2015 election. Whether the use of such rhetoric is politically successful, however, depends on how well it fits with the non-rhetorical constraints that circumscribe politicians’ room for manoeuvre. Gladstone’s ‘masses against the classes’ ultimately failed to hold together the fissiparous Liberal party in the struggle over Irish home rule (and was in any case not a message perfectly suited to an electoral era that predated universal suffrage). Roosevelt and Attlee’s Labour party, on the other hand, were more successful at making a populist argument that resonated at election time and could be translated into an agenda for government.
But rhetoric was only one part of the story here. Roosevelt and Attlee (like Obama) found themselves taking on opponents who could plausibly be described as vested interests; their rhetoric was supported by distinctive policies that illustrated the contrast between left and right; and, fundamentally, the most pressing economic concern of the time could be persuasively narrated as the protection of the average citizen from irresponsible economic elites. There are intriguing parallels between these conditions and British politics today. Labour’s policy development remains a work in progress, but stagnant living standards and the priorities of the Conservative leadership have furnished Miliband with a political context conducive to the revival of social patriotism.
The potential of One Nation Labour lies in its synthesis of Disraelian conservatism with Gladstonian populism, because it is in the combination of the two that a distinctive post-crisis Labour message can be discerned. The framing of the electoral contest as a Labour party seeking to govern in the national interest against a Conservative party which favours the better-off is now a real possibility, in part thanks to the unforced errors committed by Cameron and Osborne over the last nine months. There is still a long and punishing distance to travel, but Miliband’s conference speech has given Labour a rhetoric which, with further elaboration, could define the terms of political debate in Labour’s favour.
Ben Jackson is university lecturer in modern history at Oxford University and the editor of Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy. This is an edited excerpt of an essay in IPPR’s journal Juncture