One Nation Labour, What Does it Mean?

According to a post on the New Statesman website, Ed Miliband is determined to pursue the development of One Nation Labour as an ambitious and transformational intellectual project, as well as an ambitious plan for government and the reform of the British economy. The article quotes Stewart Wood, “Ed Miliband’s consigliere” who outlines five principles behind the project:

1. A different kind of economy

2. A determination to tackle inequality

3. An emphasis on responsibility (at the top and the bottom)

4. Protecting the elements of our common life

5. Challenging the ethics of neoliberalism

So far this discussion is largely taking place in the closed circles of the policy review and the policy-wonks who work in them. The question is, are these principles going to be accepted more widely, and will they work in practice. It’s often easy to build a theory or an ideology in the seminar room, but to make it work in the harsh reality of daylight and people’s lives, is something else.

So for each principles there are a whole host of problems and issues that need to be thought through:

1. A different kind of economy – in what way, we could just as easily invest in an economy that is more capricious and selective and which offers less sustainability and resilience to shocks and change. We need some meat-on-the-bones that takes us past the Thatcherite simplicity of ‘private good’ and ‘public bad’, so what examples and models can we look to that tell us something about longed-for economic model of the one Nation Labour dreams?

2. A determination to tackle inequality – this is more radical than it first seems. Putting full employment, back at the heart of economic decision making will wipe away the last remnants of the failed Thatcherite model. For over forty years we’ve worked to suppress inflation at the expense of maintaining high levels of unemployment. The waste and immorality of confining people on the dole, or locked into benefits, needs to be challenged. Inequality was at it’s peak in the 1970s in Britain, at the point when full-employment was last prioritised as an economic good. There’s only one chant that the Labour Party should repeat – Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

3. An emphasis on responsibility (at the top and the bottom) – restoring the principle of moral and social virtue to our individual and collective actions will be a lot harder to represent in an accessible and emotional sense, but a-politicism of democratic consumerism is unsustainable, both from a social point of view, but also from an ecological point of view. Resisting the technocratic and bureaucratic mind-set that dominates much of our public life, either as the market is allowed to provide a value-free tool for the allocation of resources, or the determination by the state, means that individuals lose site of the impact that decisions have on individuals and communities. It doesn’t mean that we stop fighting for change, but we do it in a way that is sensitive and empathetic to the lives of the people who are affected. Thatcherism is regarded by many as an absence of that empathy, with it’s focus on hyper-individualism and the ‘value-free’ marketization of decision making. There are values outside of the market that need to be cherished and fostered if a pluralistic society is to flourish.

4. Protecting the elements of our common life – the lack of investment in our cities, in social housing and in shared resources, mean that our daily life is too often a struggle and a challenge. Infrastructure that allows us to move around and get about have been hollowed-out in our towns and cities for too long. Finding locally run businesses and services is becoming harder and harder. Our high-streets are dominated by national brands, a handful of large supermarkets, and a lack of sustainable investment in family and community economies. Do we need a thousand Thorntons shops on the high-street? Do we need a supermarket with a twenty-five per cent share of the grocery market? Local competition needs to be looked at so that independents and new business get a fair crack at making a success of their businesses. Local communities should assume responsibility for local competition in goods and services. The unfair advantage of the giant supermarkets is killing our high-streets, while simultaneously blocking anything that can innovate and challenge the charity shop and pay-day check culture of decline.

5. Challenging the ethics of neoliberalism – does neoliberalism have an ethics? Merely stating that we expect people to adopt and sign-up to an ethical code is a challenge. Protecting free speech in the workplace, promoting trade unions and work-based councils will show that sharing power and decision making is more effective than the obscene forms of executive management, with immoral pay differentials and autocratic leadership cults. A return to a mixed economy, with growing support for mutualism, cooperatives and sustainability. This does not necessarily mean a return to statism and centralised control. Until fairly recently the Labour Movement was defined by thousands of small mutual societies, cooperatives and trade unions. The benefit of new online technologies give us the opportunity to communicate and organise in many diverse and provocative ways. Allowing a few small super-national web companies, like Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft to dominate the marketplace in the name of efficiency will be a betrayal of the gift that the Internet promises – self-determination and organisation.

There are many long-term, serious questions to be asked about the One Nation Labour project, it’s time we started having this discussion more openly.


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