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“One Nation”. What Does Ed Miliband Mean?

EDMTUCEd Miliband, in an attempt to define himself as a credible Leader of the Labour Party used the famous Tory phrase, “One Nation”, coined by Disraeli in 1872 and often used to describe the more consensual approach of Rab Butler and more recently Ken Clarke, 46 times during his October 2012 speech to the Labour Party Conference. What does this phrase mean, and what does it mean for the future of the Labour Party? 

It was a fascinating choice of phrase. And an obviously a deliberate one. But when you research the genesis of the term it raises a number of rather worrying questions for the Left. 

Disraeli was a Tory, and a Victorian one at that. He had some very strange opinions, and once said that Tory Governments were just, “organised hypocrisy”. In addition his attitudes to the poor were summed up in a form of Class War, “Two nations between whom there is no sympathy, as if they were inhabitants of a different planet, the rich and the poor”. Although we were very impressed by his assessment of the Westminster bubble, “We are weary of statesmen that democracy has degraded into politicians!”  More of this elsewhere. 

Miliband must have been aware what he was getting into by aping a phrase so associated with the Tory Party. On the face of it, the One Nation tag seemed like an opportunist move to grab the centre ground away from David Cameron. The prime minister, hell bent on detoxifying the Nasty Party brand had spent 2012 trying to persuade his recalcitrant 2010 right wing intake to come around to the idea of gay marriage. This was another example of Nadine Dorries’ charge of Cameron being a “posh boy… out of touch”, that he failed to take the temperature of his Party and bluster on ahead. All that happened was split in his own Party and the continued perception in the country that the Tories were still a nasty and bigoted lot. 

The idea of One Nation therefore played to middle ground and was an attempt to portray Labour as the healers of division. As the Tories continued to demonise the sick, the unemployed and young people as skivers, Miliband’s aim was to appeal to the British trait of fair play. As the public derided the Tory mantra of, “We are all in this together”, Miliband wanted to create a more consensual approach to the UK’s problems. 

But when you unpackage what One Nation meant to Benjamin Disraeli, the eyebrows are raised on the modern left. To the Tory Victorian Prime Minister One Nation meant that Class remained firmly intact but that the rich should adopt a more paternalistic view of the working classes. He appealed to their “Christian sense of duty” but in reality Disraeli was afraid that if the upper classes didn’t show more compassion there would be social and political instability, which would have a negative impact on profits. 

So in blunt reality the One Nation concept was born out of Disraeli’s belief in a rigid form of social and political hierarchy, but that in order to keep the money sloshing upwards, there had to be some crumbs thrown from the table to keep the workers from railing against their conditions. 

Maybe Miliband was referring to the era of consensus that was believed to exist post world war two, and was ended by the Thatherite attempts to break the trade unions, and the large (mainly nationalised) workplaces that were their stronghold?

Butskillism was a term used to describe the similarity between the Rab Butler moderate wing of the Tory Party, and the more pro market right wing of the Hugh Gaitskell. However, Butler’s appeal was based on what he described as “targeted welfare”, and an anti dependency approach. Classic dog whistle stuff for the Tory right, but delivered in a more affable and chummy way. A proto type for the Boris Johnson approach that the London Mayor summed up in a 2010 speech, “I’m a one-nation Tory. There is a duty on the part of the rich to the poor and to the needy, but you are not going to help people express that duty and satisfy it if you punish them fiscally so viciously that they leave this city and this country. I want London to be a competitive, dynamic place to come to work.” 

Translated Boris was saying, “Look chaps, we need to look like we care so be terribly nice and give a few quid up in tax and charity japes, but in reality you can fill your boots and I won’t mind awfully much”. 

Boris is nothing if not astute. By backing Cameron’s plan for gay marriage he was positioning himself away from the Nasty Party element, portraying himself as a social liberal but at the same time he knew what terrible damage Cameron was inflicting on himself as a credible uniting Leader of the Tories. This way, when Cameron fails to win the 2015 election, or is ditched before hand, Boris is in pole position to take over as the real One Nation Tory deal.

So what does Ed Miliband mean with his One Nation mantra and how does it sit with his own analysis of why Labour was hammered in 2010? In August of that year he told a meeting of Labour members in Scunthorpe that, “We did not lose the election by being too left wing”. And in December 2011 he told a similar meeting in Hull that, “Cameron has declared class war”. 

With the Party in a mid term electoral lead Miliband had to find something to tell the public that would show he understood the problems of the UK without actually presenting any concrete policies. Miliband ran the risk of falling into the same trap as Cameron when the Tory Leader’s idea of the “Big Society” was launched in 2010. It sounded impressive, but half way through the Parliament the Tories, let alone the public had the foggiest idea what it meant, and the “Big Society was quietly dropped in 2012. 

One Nation may mean that Miliband wants Labour to reconnect with the Middle Class voters that catapulted Tony Blair into Downing Street all those years ago, but the truth, and the stats show that Labour lost in 2010 because it’s core vote deserted in droves by either voting for “others” (13% a fifty year record) or not bothering to cast their vote in the first place. If you look at the vote by social class, Labour’s vote collapsed in the “C2” (working poor) category by 11%, but crucially the Tories only picked up 4% here, the rest went to “Others”, a huge protest, but by no means a pro Tory vote. 

Amongst the wealthy “AB” so called “thinking vote” there was only a minor 2% swing against Labour, 7% below the average. So it appears Labour did well with the rich but the further down the social scale you go, the worse Labour performed. The co author Danny Marten actually increased the Labour vote by 25% in one of the richest constituencies in the UK on a broadly more left wing manifesto than the national Party produced. 

The One Nation speech faced the accusation of treading water mid Parliament, avoiding policy gaffes and own goals and just waiting for the country to wake up to the fact that the Tories were wrecking the country via their obsession with austerity. In fact the Guardian columnist Deborah Orr writing the day after the speech called the One Nation concept, “not a call to arms, but a call to complacency”. And given Labour’s failure to engage with the panic spreading across Town Halls, hospitals and schools all over the UK, perhaps Ms. Orr’s conclusions were more realistic than many Labour activists in the Conference Centre were prepared to acknowledge.














About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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