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One Nationism – Richard Reeves

October 4, 2012

The political movement that now sweeps all before it is not conservatism, socialism or liberalism. It is One Nationism. All the main political parties have now made their claim to be the true heirs to “One Nation” politics.

The Conservatives were ahead of the game by a century or so, of course. But in more recent years, non Tory leaders have turned to One Nationism to pitch for the centre ground: though none as audaciously as Ed Miliband this week.

In 1995, Tony Blair said that both Labour and the Conservatives were parties “in a state of transition. As the critical mass in the Tory party moves further and further to the right, it is Labour that is increasingly the party of the centre and the left of centre”. The “one nation” mantle, Blair said, “no longer fits the Tories. It is draped rightly around our shoulders”.

And in his spring conference speech this year, Nick Clegg said:

The Liberal Democrats are once again a truly national party of government. The only party of the centre ground, not of the left or right, of north or south, rich or poor but doing the right thing for the whole nation. The other parties are bound and gagged by vested interests. We are not. The other parties are hemmed into certain parts of the country. Look at the electoral map: blue seats in the south, red ones in the north. Look at where the money comes from: trade unions on one side, City financiers on the other. That is why we can say today: the Liberal Democrats are the only true one nation party. A one nation party of the radical centre, representing all regions and nations. Seeing not what divides us – but what unites us. Sound on the economy, passionate about fairness: doing the right thing and battling vested interests. Challenging the status quo.

There was quite of bit of internal soul searching about this speech. Some colleagues feared that the “one nation” claim would upset the more traditional social democrats in the party who would recognize it as a Tory phrase. Given party discomfort about the Coalition, and a false sense of Nick being ‘on the right’ of the party, this was a reasonable enough concern. But Nick thought that if anyone could honestly claim the one nation label, it was the Liberal Democrats – and that we might as well seize it.

As it turned out, political rows over the Budget – and especially the proposed “tycoon tax” – drowned out any coverage of the “one nation liberalism” that Clegg proclaimed. And Nick only used the phrase a couple of times. Now Ed Miliband has stolen a march with his 46 fold repetition. And political journalists have notoriously short memories.

So what does it all mean? On the face of it, being in favour of “one nation” as opposed to a divided one is just a big slice of political apple pie. It is unlikely any politician will say: “I think our country is stronger when divided, especially between the valiant rich and the idle plebs”.

So we could just dimiss it all as SW1 game playing. But I think there’s more to it than that. One Nationism can be seen as an approach to policy, as well of course as an approach to politics.

In policy terms, the most obvious implication of One Nationism is to pursue initiatives to close the gap between rich and poor. That is certainly what Disraeli meant. Given anger against the “super rich” and widening inequalities on many dimensions, this is a rich seam for Miliband and others to mine. Here is what Ed said he sought:

That spirit of One Nation. One Nation: a country where everyone has a stake. One Nation: a country where prosperity is fairly shared. One Nation: where we have a shared destiny, a sense of shared endeavour and a common life that we lead together.

Later in the speech, he added this attack on Cameron:

You can’t be a One Nation Prime Minister if you raise taxes on ordinary families and cut taxes for millionaires. You can’t be a One Nation Prime Minister if all you do is seek to divide the country. Divide the country between north and south. Public and private. Those who can work and those who can’t work. And you can’t be a One Nation Prime Minister if your Chief Whip insults the great police officers of our country by calling them plebs.

Taking out the platitudes and jibes, we are left with three substantive claims:

1) “Prosperity is fairly shared”

Miliband is clear that he believes, simply on moral grounds, that financial inequality is too high. We don’t know whether he is more interested in income inequality (going down thanks to the recession) or wealth inequality (still stubbornly high) – and this is an important distinction, at least to One Nation liberals. But here at least it is clear that One Nationism equals some form of egalitarianism.

The trouble is that as Amartya Sen famously wrote, everyone is in favour of equality: the question is “equality of what?”. For Ed M, the implied answer, given his attack on the top rate tax cut, is equality of income. Fair enough. But it is equally plausible to claim, as Nick Clegg does, that the inequalities that matter most are in opportunity, power and wealth. Of course these inequalities overlap. But they are not the same thing. Nick Clegg would rather take money off the wealthy via wealth taxes, than off high income-earners via high income taxes. What about Miliband? We don’t know. A One Nation liberal believes that inequalities in life chances are at least as corrosive to a sense of “shared destiny” as a rise in the gini coefficient of income equality. But Ed M’s party has thus far done little more than scorn the serious work done by Clegg on the social mobility agenda. So far, One Nationism just looks like it has been retrofit onto Miliband’s old-school egalitarianism.

2) “Where everyone has a stake”

Again, this has a multitude of meanings. But in two areas at least, Miliband put decent flesh on the bones. First, he is right to highlight the scandalous gap between vocational and academic learning, especially between 14 and 19. (He was a bit ungenerous, given the efforts by the Government to build on Labour’s apprenticeship scheme, but that’s politics for you.) In fact, Miliband had the perfect plan almost 20 years ago: abolish existing qualifications and adopt a “British Baccalaureate” that integrates vocational learning with academics in a single 14-19 curriculum. (That was David Miliband, for IPPR, I should have said.) Few Liberal Democrats would disagree. And in fact, Labour had the chance to enact precisely this reform following the Tomlinson report in 2004 – and blew it. So good stuff, Ed: but will you abolish A levels?

Second, Miliband points to the need to “refound” the rule of corporate governance. The headline grabber was abolishing quarterly reporting, but the real interest lies in his wish to work with business to create a “One Nation business model as part of a One Nation economy”. Time to dust off our copies of Will Hutton’s ‘The State We’re In’, and Blair’s speech in Singapore on the stakeholder economy. Or even to read some of Nick Clegg’s recent speeches. Or look at the work being done, primarily by Liberal Democrats, to promote greater employee ownership and mutualism – not only in the public sector, but private sector too. I agree with Ed Miliband that ownership matters, and that power is too concentrated within British firms. Read Tristram Hunt’s chapter in the ‘Purple Book’, read Nick Clegg’s speech on the ‘John Lewis economy’, even – yes – Philip Blond’s ‘Red Toryism’. There is work to be done here across the parties. But we might need to abolish the Treasury.

3) “North and South”

Regional economic inequality is a real and growing problem in the UK. We remain heavily biased towards London and the South East. (That’s why regional public sector pay, while horrible politics, is actually quite sensible policy.) If there was an easy solution, Labour might have found it between 1997 and 2010. There are two sides of this coin: the first is to promote labour mobility, so that people can move more easily from where the jobs aren’t, to where the jobs are. This flies in the face of Miliband’s slightly nostalgic communitarianism: but the hard truth is that there is a limit to how far economic growth can be channelled into poorer regions. One of the advantages of the US is the relative willingness of people to get the ‘U-Haul’ and move for a job. Here many of the Coalition’s policies should be welcomed: relaxing planning rules to ease the sclerotic private housing market, and making it easier for social tenants to move regions. The other side of the coin is galvanizing more growth and job creation in the north. The Regional Growth Fund and Growing Places Fund – again surely to be welcomed by a ‘One Nation’ leader? – are working hard, but against the grain. What we need is massive investment via a national infrastructure bank in the transport infrastructure of northern cities and the links between them, directly elected city wide mayors with considerable powers over economic policy, and the creation of a northern belt of top notch independent state schools.

So, there is some juice in One Nationism as a policy agenda. But it would be fair to point out that in most of these areas, Labour’s claim to it is weaker than the Liberal Democrats’.

Little of this is what gets the Westminster village excited, of course. The most potent aspect of One Nationism is a political signalling device. It is the least subtle way of saying: “I am not left-wing/right-wing really, I’m in the centre like you”. It will be interesting to see if perceptions of Ed Miliband alter as a result of this one speech. I doubt it. He would have to take many more risks with his own party to genuinely show any kind of move to the centre, and of course repeat his message ad nauseam.

But he has bigger challenges than communication. Just as a One Nation Tory needs to show he is for the poor, so a One Nation Labour leader needs to show he is not only for the poor. Ed Miliband needs to win seats in the South, and right now Miliband shows little sign of understanding more affluent voters – not least from his persistent insistence that everyone who earns more than £150,000 is a ‘millionaire’.

If Ed Miliband is serious about One Nationism, he would also need to dramatically alter his stance with regard to the Liberal Democrats. It is no good claiming the One Nation label and then thoughtlessly bashing the only genuine party of the centre ground.

Richard Reeves is associate director of CentreForum.

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