Ed Miliband’s unashamed borrowing of the concept of “One Nation” from the Conservative tradition takes us back to the Clinton/Blair model of triangulation: positioning your party on territory more generally associated with your main rival in order to shrink the latter’s support back down to its core vote. Strategically, it’s very much an attempt to repeat what New Labour achieved in 1997 – positioning itself as a party in step with the mood of the whole nation and picking up votes way beyond its traditional base.
This gambit assumes that even many people who have traditionally voted Tory are becoming alienated from the ideologically-driven market dogma of Cameron’s party, feel ripped off, and worry that important national institutions from the NHS to the police are being undermined. Labour is to be the moderate voice of the British people, the coalition parties are a combination of extremism, dishonesty and incompetence.
Now this picture is accurate enough to give Labour enough leeway to make some welcome announcements, such as “ending the free-market experiment” in the NHS (which New Labour itself began), putting up top rate tax, and taking action to curb casino banking. But not only did Miliband distance himself from the “Red Ed” moniker, but he failed to make a single mention of trade unions; directly admitted that a Labour government would not reverse many of the Tory cuts,;and would mean “tough” choices for the people who work in the public services, and the millions who use them. A “One Nation” approach means continuing to deliver cuts and austerity but with less immediate pain and manifest unfairness.
The speech is already being lauded by party loyalists and the liberal media. But when the dust settles, how many teachers, nurses, or council workers will thrill to the prospect of a Labour government offering a pay freeze and “tough settlements” for as far as we can see? Will the emollient language of “one nation” make-up for the failure to reverse Tory cuts and represent the interests of ordinary people?
Significantly, there was no mention of “class” in the speech. “One Nation” Toryism was never about abolishing class society, or putting real power into the hands of working people. Rather, it was about the government acting to ameliorate social division and reconciling the interests of capitalism with a unifying thematic of “the national interest”. This conservative British narrative may yet get swept aside by the tide of political events as struggles against austerity across Europe continue to intensify. The interests of labour (ie. working people and their families) and capitalism can’t be aligned as easily in reality as in the rhetoric of a Conference speech. Ironically, for all the acceptance of austerity, Ed’s vision of “One Nation” is far more utopian than anything Marxists have ever stood for.
Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.