Why One Nation is a great attack strategy for Labour, and why that is not enough


Between Miliband’s speech last week and Cameron’s imminent one, there have been many pieces on Labour’s audacious, and slightly unexpected, pitch for the centre ground. It still has drawbacks: it does not deal with the state of the party organisation, and it does not deal with the deficit. But it is a good strategy, and there seems broad agreement that it is the right one. Barring an extraordinary conference comeback by Cameron which leaves it on the floor, it has put Labour back in the game.

Few, it seems though, have commented why it works so well in terms of putting Cameron on the back foot.

It is not just the fact that jumping into the centre of the political squash court forces Cameron either to fight for it, or abandon it. Or the way it correctly identifies that the way to hit the current Cabinet’s Achilles heel, its connection with privilege, is not to play a clumsy class war tactic, but simply to remind everyone of the obvious, that they are not like us, the great majority, and therefore struggle to understand us. Or simply that it is Labour landing a punch on Cameron, almost for the first time, which is down to the party itself and not some screw-up of the government.

No, the real secret lies in the words, “One Nation”. It cleverly plays on the fact that Cameron cannot easily have the Tories try to take it back, because the whole One Nation concept is anathema to them. I know, I know: they invented it. But, if truth be known, they are words which nowadays make most of the back benches squirm with discomfort.

To understand why, we need to go back to 1979. Thatcher broke the post-war consensus, that had kept centrist figures on both sides of the political fence pursuing policies which were not that radically different. Indeed, during the 1950s, the term “Butskellism” was coined to denote that Chancellors R.A. Butler and Hugh Gaitskell really had pretty much the same idea of running the economy. They, their bosses and their successors, were practical politicians; she, by contrast, was an ideologue. One Nation Toryism survived Thatcher’s term as Prime Minister, but it was not in good shape by the end.

In fact, the last Conservative leader proudly to wear the “One Nation” label was her predecessor, Edward Heath. But not only was Heath to become despised in Tory mythology for supposedly selling out Britain to Europe, not to mention suffering the ignominy of a three-day week on his watch; Thatcher and her adherents despised everything that his comfortable, inclusive, collaborative style of Toryism had come to stand for. One Nation Tories, she stated implacably, were “No Nation Tories”.

Fast forward thirty years, and the current “Millionaires’ Cabinet” seems a strange throwback to less enlightened times; but, at the same time, it is in charge of a group of backbenchers of a quite different stripe. There are more businessmen than country squires: unapologetic free-marketeers. And they are passionate, often to the point of being quite swivel-eyed, about the evil of Europe. After 1997, they nearly destroyed their party during the 2000s, but Cameron managed to hold them together with a makeover. The pro-Europeans, on the other hand, the moderates, the One Nationers were marginalised. Many dropped out of politics altogether.

This is something which stuck in my mind, because on 2 May, 1997, I was standing on the steps of Skipton Town Hall, in the Yorkshire Dales, talking to David Curry MP, who until very recently had been Minister of Transport. A decent enough Tory, who had just given me a good hiding in the election: he had just won and I had just lost, but in that moment I was suddenly aware of the huge difference in our worldviews.

I was euphoric, because Labour had just won a landslide (my own loss, needless to say, was entirely expected). He was devastated: but not so much, it seemed, because of the loss of his ministerial car. In his acceptance speech he had spoken emotively, not about the Tories’ astounding wipeout, but about the importance of Europe to Britain. His real achievement, he told me, was beating off the challenge from the Euro-sceptic Referendum Party, whose members later transferred in droves to UKIP.

I was amazed – how could he care about those marginal loons, and especially on a day like today, when his party had been wiped out? And then it hit me: it wasn’t the loss of office. It was the fact that he and his kind, the pro-European centrists, were fast becoming an endangered species within his own party. While the right was on the rise, even with a seat as safe as houses, his career in high politics was essentially over. And so it turned out to be, once his mentor, Ken Clarke, had failed to become leader.

It is these same rightists on the Tory back benches who are the real “Thatcher’s children”. And they have only limited patience for a leader who has, to many of them, conspired with the Lib Dems to sell their true-blue ideals down the river.

So One Nation, you see, is a great attack strategy for Labour. Because it is a phrase which is attractive to the public, but which the Tories do not even want to take back, at least in their current incarnation.

But, as we celebrate a good win, the thing we need to bear in mind is this: we need more than a mere attack strategy. We need policies, and we need them fast. The positioning is great, but if we don’t back it up with the meat, it’ll stay just that – in fact, not positioning but sloganeering, less credible with each passing day. Exactly, in fact, what has happened to the Big Society.

The real tough choices will come in defining that programme. At the moment, One Nation is a nice, fluffy concept, which is pleasing everyone in the party and in the labour movement. Good. But when policies are defined, some people are going to be happy, and others bitterly disappointed. Managing those disappointments, and accepting the impossibility of pleasing all the people all the time, will be the real, acid test of Miliband’s leadership.

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