One Nation is an audacious land grab – but with problems and limitations

17th November, 2012 7:20 am

Hats off to Jon Cruddas and Mark Ferguson for a great One Nation week on LabourList. I think you have to wear a hat if it’s a proper One Nation! For the first time in a long time, since Ed’s conference speech, Labour has a prism through which to think and operate and the postings this week have shown there is life, energy and vitally to the concept.

No single short phrase can ever bear the burden of carrying a whole political project. All we can settle on is a phrase that is good enough – that enables enough of the country to shelter under it. We wont know if One Nation (ON) is good enough until May 2015. But the leadership is investing in it and it looks like it will stick. It is our job to get behind it in a constructively critical way – as we have seen this week on this site.

The beauty of the phrase is not just its audacious land grab on the Tories home turf but the place it gives everyone in Labour. We can read what we want into ON – from left to right and from blue to new. As such it feels slightly reminiscent of early New Labour where, for a while at least, the old right and the soft left could find a home. Like all mobilizing phrases that is its strength and its weakness. And, like the evolution of New Labour, the politics of ON will adapt not just based on the character and nature of the Party’s leadership but crucially the forces that operate around them.

Which brings us to some of the detail of this weeks LabourList debate. The quality and breadth has been great. Spotting Philip Blond from the centre right and Richard Grayson from Liberal Left is good for the debate, the site and Labour. Inevitably ON is being shoehorned into everyone’s pet subject. If you append ON to X, Y or Z then you are away. Well maybe. Lets not get too carried away with its applicability.

So lots of great articles but the highlights I spotted were these. First Maurice Glassman and Francesca Klug, setting out the paradoxical nature of the ON project. Again this is a character of all political projects – they carry within them essential tensions that provide both opportunities and threats. Maurice makes us think about what we want to cherish and what we need to renew, while Francesca gets us thinking about the particularity of a national story within the need for a universalist message. Her recourse to a politics of the good society, in tune with Maurice’s common good, is certainly welcome with me.

Anthony Painter offers his usually sharp overview, this time on the division between those that want to reform the state and those that are state skeptics. I’m with the former. There are places the state must not go, like the infringement of our liberties, but its is the democratization and localization of the state that will enable us to build from a solid and diverse foundation. Duncan O’Leary gives us a good example through the SureStart story – the best New Labour example of the importance of institution building in a political project that started to go wrong when it stopped being co-produced. As Hilary Cottam’s relational welfare tells us, these institutions have to start with people – not diktats from the centre. And really important is Ivana Bartolleti on feminism – reminding us that there are things we want to conserve but old male dominated hierarchies are certainly not one of them.

Then we come to the problems and limitations of ON politics. The structural flaws are Scotland, Wales, Europe and the environment. Can One Nation cover these bases too? It’s tricky to say the least. Michael Jacobs does a good job on Labour and land but knows too well that climate change respects no national borders. Which bring us to Colin Crouch and Europe. The structural weakness of the left is that capital went global and so far democracy has failed to keep up. You cannot regulate something over which you have no control. If we cannot find global or at least European solutions to the now obvious downside of free markets then more authoritarian forces will try to find national solutions. We might end up with a very different ON than we bargained for.

Such flaws don’t invalidate ONism as a mobilizing concept. It does mean there is a lot of hard work to stretch it far enough but not beyond either the ridiculous or a breaking point. We have a concept to work with. Lets do just that, with commitment, tolerance and respect. Well done to Jon and Mark for a fantastic week of One Nation debate.

Neal Lawson is Chair of Compass

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

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