Ed Miliband’s recent Conference Speech was met with great acclaim for its ambitious and surprising declaration of a “One Nation” Labour Party. It was undoubtedly a brave and rousing message, but the proposal of “One Nation” is nothing new.The concept originated with a Conservative Prime Minister speaking 140 years earlier, yards from where Miliband himself stood. In 1872 Benjamin Disraeli addressed the Manchester Free Trade Hall (now the Radisson Hotel) with a new message of Conservatism. Individual action and self-preservation were unworkable for an organic modern society, government intervention should help, and the upper class had a moral obligation to support the poor.
When he wrote his 1845 novel Sybil, Disraeli asserted that Britain was becoming “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy”. His words were, as much as anything, vote-grabbing but Disraeli follow the policy through. His second government introduced wide-reaching social reforms to improve the lot of the working class including changes to working-class housing, the recognition in legislation of Friendly Societies to protect workers’ savings and the equalisation of employees’ rights in the Employer’s and Workmen Act of 1875.
The post-war consensus of the 50s and 60s also saw a rise in “One Nation” politics as social and economic reforms proved that interventionism worked. Only when Margaret Thatcher advocated economic independence did “One Nation” conservatism fade. Historically, then, “One Nation” ideal has been claimed by the Conservative Party. So, how has Miliband appropriated it for Labour, and can it work?
Crucially, the Conservative Party has missed a trick. David Cameron is a “One Nation” Tory in Disraeli’s mould: he could just as easily have claimed to be the man to re-unite Britain, but he missed his chance. Miliband was alert to the idea and, while his politics may not closely reflect Disraeli’s, his vision does. The beauty of “One Nation” is that it is all-encompassing – a rallying cry to the working class and a celebration of national pride for the right.
The Labour leadership aims to occupy the centre ground. Boundary changes and the threat of independence for Scotland mean that Labour has to re-think its position electorally. They lost 137 MPs in England in 2010 and they must win them back. “One Nation” is the sort of rhetoric that leaves nobody behind and could be vote-winning for Ed Miliband.
In policy terms the implications are unclear. Labour can take a tougher line on bankers’ bonuses and reforms to vocational training. But it leaves them in a tricky position on welfare reform and the Winter Fuel Allowance. “One Nation” is more a banner to march under than a policy generator. Historically, being the “One Nation” party in time of crisis has always been fruitful. As both parties argue the true meaning of Disraeli’s words, Ed Miliband will be hoping that “One Nation” kick-starts a new era for Labour.