John Denham. Flickr/DIUSGOVUK. Some rights reserved.
As someone who became a Labour MP (for Southampton) in 1992 it’s my view that to win support for ‘One Nation Labour’ is a much more audacious challenge than the ‘New Labour’ project of the mid-1990s. For a start, it is about winning back power in five years, not the eighteen it took us after 1979.
It is also more audacious because One Nation Labour seeks support for a more radical reshaping of Britain and its institutions than New Labour ever envisaged.
But it’s also more audacious because building the type of broad support that ‘New Labour’ enjoyed will today be tougher than it was 20 years ago in the build-up to the 1997 election. In particular because Britain is a far more fissiparous and divided, if not polarised, society.
First, there’s an enduring myth that New Labour won by targeting the aspirational centre ground and simply relied on those to the left and more traditional working class voters having nowhere else to go. In fact, the original New Labour appeal was quite different. Certainly, centre ground voters supported us. But this was because New Labour’s appeal encompassed and included the centre ground; it was not targeted or focused at the centre.
In opposition and the run-up to winning power in 1997, those of us who successfully supported a New Labour approach did so not by advocating particular policies for targeted groups of swing voters, but by maintaining a fundamentally inclusive, values-based approach. It was only after Labour took power that the communications strategy shifted towards a focus on a (somewhat mythical) set of centrist voters with (supposedly) narrowly economistic and self-centred views.
New Labour was at its most effective when we repeated the values of our approach again and again so that they registered with voters whatever the media tried to do. We went on – and on! - about:
- The balance of rights and responsibilities
- The equal weight we gave to fairness and to opportunity
- Our commitment to using collective strength to achieve individual aspirations
- Our belief that we could bring together sound economics and social justice
When we did frame policy it was based on these values, hence “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”.
The values made sense. They described the way our country should be and could be. They represented a shared common ground between radical and traditional Labour voters, and also the new aspirational voters we wanted to win.
In government, New Labour may have drifted away from this approach. That’s another discussion. But the pressing issue today is: how well does ‘One Nation Labour’ meet the need for an inclusive, values-based appeal that encompasses the country as a whole?
Clearly the concept and the approach behind it has real strength. It is giving us a progressive patriotic national narrative, which makes us sound as though we love our country (unlike the toe-curling 'cool Britannia' of early New Labour). Ed Miliband is single-handedly outlining a responsible capitalism; in talking of pre-distribution and of building an economy from the middle outwards he is being explicit about the need to changes the rules of the game, and to build fairness into the basic structure of the economy.
But can One Nation as we now have it give Labour the inclusive reach New Labour once enjoyed? Let’s start with the notion of ‘targeting the centre ground’. Not only is this a misunderstanding of the history of New Labour’s success, it fails to recognise that the nature of the centre in British politics and society has changed profoundly over the past two decades. The ‘centre’ has neither moved to the left, nor to the right. But nor has it stayed where it was! It has become hollowed out as opinions have polarised. In the wake of the crisis and continuing low growth and austerity Britain’s voters have moved further and further away from each other.
Those voters who were always most disposed to radical change are more disposed to more radical change.
Those in the electorate who were always most concerned about insecurity and the need to resist further change feel even more insecure and are even more worried about, and resistant to, change.
And those voters who have always looked first to identify their own aspiration and interest in any political offer are less inclined to believe that anyone can offer them anything.
Labour’s support is strongest amongst those disposed to change. There aren’t enough of these voters to guarantee victory. In any case, One Nation Labour cannot be elected or govern as One Nation without attracting support across very different groups of voters. How can we make this attraction a positive virtue when, given the way the centre is pulling part, it runs the risk of communicating a sense of opportunism and incoherence?
One Nation Labour needs to be more than an approach to politics that seeks to convey a sense of what it will be like to feel we are ‘One Nation’. It has to be underpinned by characteristic Labour values that have resonance: values that can construct the link from the One Nation idea to particular policies so that people can see Labour is creating a fresh politics that will deliver something meaningful, whether extending apprenticeships or reversing the millionaires’ tax cut, in a way that is coherent and purposive and about more than boys winning office.
It’s essential to set out the practical values that will underpin One Nation Labour. Today, far more than in the 1990s, our values must make sense across very different groups of voters. To get the discussion going, I’ll suggest three.
- Britain today is torn apart by the widespread feeling that rules are always different for someone else. ‘Migrants get different treatment to the settled population’. ‘Welfare claimants get help that working families cannot’. ‘The Scots and Welsh have a better deal than the English’. ‘Starbucks doesn’t pay tax and the coffee shop on the corner does’. ‘There’s one set of rules for the rich and another for the rest of us’. ‘The banks can wreck the economy and go away unpunished’.
A ‘One Nation Labour’ should challenge unfairness wherever it lies. Our first One Nation value should be ‘A country where everyone is seen to play by the same rules’
- We cannot stop the world and get off. Big change is needed. But it sometimes sounds as though all modernisation, all change is good in itself. People value their communities, social institutions, cultural values, human relationships, the way they are treated at work. We need to be clear that One Nation Labour values security and constancy within a changing world.
Our second One Nation value should be: ‘Change because we have to; conserving where we can’
- Playing by the same rules is an important statement of fairness. But it is equally important that opportunities are open to all and there is seen to be a fair reward for playing by the rules. Contribution, effort and responsibility must be rewarded just as much as rights are recognised. This is the basis for One Nation’s commitment to a job guarantee that has to be taken up and our criticism of unjustified boardroom excess.
Our third One Nation value should be: ‘More opportunity, less privilege; reward for what you put in, not how much you can take out’.
One Nation Labour can be the vehicle for electoral success, as New Labour was before. But a clear, explicit, and repeated set of underpinning values is essential to explain the policies we adopt and the way we view the future, and to draw in voters who currently fear that Labour’s ‘One Nation’ is not for them.
A shorter version of this piece first appeared in Shifting Ground.