The Modernising Antecedents of Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour

By Mark Wickham-Jones

Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour initiative, launched so successfully and dramatically at the 2012 conference, draws heavily on the party’s experience under Neil Kinnock during the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as during Tony Blair’s tenure as leader of the opposition between 1994 and 1997.

The Labour leader’s conference speech in Manchester contained two specific policy proposals. With regard to skills acquisition, he promised that a Labour government would introduce a new Technical Baccalaureate and insist that companies receiving public grants trained their workforces adequately.

With regard to the short-termism in the economy that resulted from predatory economic behaviour, he pledged to offer protection from takeovers, partly through changes to accounting procedures. In later speeches, he supported the introduction of regional banks along the lines of those extant in Germany.

These policy proposals echo those at the heart of Labour’s 1989 policy review document, Meet the Challenge, Make the Change.  It argued that firms did not train because they feared that skilled workers would be poached by other companies. It claimed that businesses did not invest in the long term because of the short-term pressure to deliver immediate profits. The theoretical argument underpinning Miliband’s One Nation resonated that behind the policy review. He argued in Manchester that ‘In One Nation there is no place for free riding’. In the same manner, Neil Kinnock claimed in April 1989 that ‘for an individual firm, such free riding might have advantages. But when most, or all, try to free ride. Nobody rides.’ The policy review also proposed regional banks and, with its condemnation of ‘predatory’ economic behaviour, it predated Miliband’s critique of predatory capitalism in his 2011 Labour conference speech.

The link between Tony Blair’s New Labour and Ed Miliband’s One Nation is less concerned with specific policy measures than with the discourse with which the party’s outlook was articulated during his first years as leader. One Nation was a central theme of his 1995 conference speech. John Prescott explicitly developed the theme of One Nation Labour in his conference address that year. In 1996 it was the big idea in (and a frequent entry in the index to) Tony Blair’s book, New Britain. Between 1994 and 1999, Blair made frequent use of the One Nation refrain at the Labour conference. In January 1996, he linked the concept to his articulation of stakeholding as the basis for Labour’s policies. Miliband’s adoption of the slogan represents a shared language and discourse: echoing stakeholding, the Labour leader has emphasised the importance of all members of society having a stake in One Nation. Like Blair, he has attacked the Conservative-led government for having divisive policies and offered an inclusive One Nation approach as the alternative.

The associations between One Nation Labour and earlier modernising initiatives within the party do not mean that policy has developed in a linear and evolutionary fashion. There are significant differences between One Nation Labour and many of the measures implemented by Labour in office between 1997 and 2010, most notably in the emphasis placed by the government on the financial sector and upon flexible labour markets. One Nation Labour, however, has not been shaped by current debates and arguments such as those surrounding Blue Labour or by a sudden lurch to the left. Rather it reflects the ability to learn from previous initiatives, building on their strengths. It represents the party’s capacity to draw on its modernising traditions in a reflective fashion. Given the extent to which Miliband’s trajectory draws on Blair’s discourse, the criticisms of the former by the latter are surprising and misplaced. From this perspective, Ed Miliband may well owe Tony Blair a greater debt than either would wish currently to acknowledge.

Mark Wickham-Jones is professor of political science at the University of Bristol

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