Sunday 24 February 2013

Tristram Hunt on One Nation

At Stoke-on-Trent Central CLP's monthly meeting a week last Friday, we heard from our Member of Parliament - Tristram Hunt - on the most vexatious of shiny new political ideas, EdM's 'One Nation'. So what is this One Nation lark all about, really? Is it code for a post-New Labour lurch to the right? Is it a cunning attempt to rebrand a more traditional form of Labourism? Or, like Dave's Big Society schtick, is it something for the wonks and commentariat to get excited about before a quiet consigning to the bin of used ideologies once the realities of power bite? Whatever members' views were the lead off and discussion was a useful effort of clarification.

In his talk, Tristram began with One Nation's conservative roots in the 'condition of England' novels the proliferated during the middle part of the 19th century, taking in such literary luminaries as Dickens and Gaitskell, and Benjamin Disraeli's own Sybil, or, The Two Nations. Their common theme was the widening social distance opened up by the industrial revolution and out of it developed One Nation Toryism, which concerned itself about healing gross inequality and poverty via intervention, paternalism, and philanthropy. It was a political philosophy of the rich feeling honour-bound and obliged to help those and the bottom of the society the first pulses of industrial capitalism was creating. Whatever its shortcomings, this once-dominant species of conservatism was killed of by Thatcher's neoliberal conservatism. She may have paid lip service to Victorian notions of morality, but behind her philosophy of personal responsibility lay an ideological project of laissez-faire. A few One Nation Tory big beasts still lumber about, but they are very much an endangered species.

Tristram thought Ed Miliband's stealing of the Tories One Nation clothes was "brilliant and brave", but what exactly does it mean? It offers a different way of thinking about capitalism to that on offer from the Tories and LibDems. Against the backdrop of a widening wealth gap, sharpening differentials between classes, and a geographical division between the South East and the rest of Britain. Not only is it an apposite starting point to address these problems, policy after policy the Coalition are showing themselves to be sectional parties. The bedroom tax, bringing the very poorest into Council Tax, hammering the low paid with changes AND cutting the 50p top rate demonstrates this better than anything else. The task for Labour is to give One Nation some policy content, and this is starting to emerge around industrial strategy and rebalancing the economy, changes to income tax, the mansion tax, and making work pay so fewer people have to top up their wages with social security. As Labour is the only properly British political party remaining, and - in the main part - the political author of the inclusive multicultural British national identity, it is uniquely positioned to talk about One Nation and the social democratic politics its promise demands.

There followed an interesting discussion. Sister P was worried about the disparity that has opened up over the last 30 years, especially among the affluent who have imbibed a huge sense of entitlement. They, aided and abetted by the press, has allowed them to think they're uniquely deserving. Brother A welcomed the One Nation idea, thinking it was a clever counterposition to the Coalition's two nations approach. He also thought this rebranding was more ambitious and more in tune with people's aspirations than New Labour, which he believed secured 'discipline' at the expense of emptying out the party - and indeed welcomed EdM's public attempts to put red (and white, and blue) water between his leadership and those of his predecessors. He went on to say that One Nation is in the interests of our class - the working class. Taking away from the rich and redistributing to the poor is the only way of realising One Nation. Brother G, a recent returnee to the Labour Party after leaving 20 years ago, suggested that One Nation is as yet quite fuzzy. We still don't know what it's about - we also need to define what its values are.

Responding to this first round of discussion, Tristram argued that New Labour was about combining together economic efficiency with the delivery of social justice. The challenge of One Nation is to translate it from abstract discussion into the language that goes down well on doorsteps. For this to work, you need a philosophy, a leader that embodies that idea, and a succinct explanation. In this sense, New Labour proved particularly effective - especially in the swing seats. The advantage One Nation has is that it can speak to voters that may otherwise vote Tory while saying the sorts of things Labour voters expect.

In an additional round of discussion, sister M recalled going on the doorsteps in 2008 shortly after Brown scrapped the 10p tax. But now she felt it may be an idea that has passed its used by date considering the LibDems' determination to raise tax thresholds. Should Labour look at extending that in the future? Brother A mentioned 'predistribution' and the place in occupies in the One Nation vision, and brother S talked about workplace rights and the expansion of zero hour contracts in the NHS, and the subsidising of low pay by the taxpayer through tax credits and other social security supports.

Replying, Tristram offered a glimpse of the two camps at the top concerning wages. Should Labour favour a flat living wage, or a better minimum wage topped up with tax credits? While the first should be something to aim for, the problem of legislating for such a wage is how to mitigate the impact on small businesses? He also accepted S's arguments and noted the link between feeling secure in employment, consumer confidence, and the taking out of mortgages for new houses. But on the flip side the historically low productivity vs continental competitors has to be looked at (Tristram was at pains to deny this was because British workers were "lazy"). This requires a vocational strategy to match the demand for skills with the supply of necessary training rather than leaving it to markets. However, he did sound a note of caution - German capitalism is very productive, but its division of labour is almost caste-like and it is very difficult to move between skilled jobs.

By way of summary, he suggested that Labour doesn't have the answers yet but the process overseen by Jon Cruddas is starting to get us there. He's asking the right questions about the sorts of policies that can resonate between now and the general election, and it's EdM's challenge to translate those policy conversations into an easy-to-sell vision for Britain.


JK said...

Thanks for this. To be honest, I remain unconvinced. The way that the usual New Labour suspects have lined up to recast old New Labour guff with the flag of One Nationism (see Labour List for some of the worse/best examples, suggest little has changed in terms of policy and outlook.

I was particularly irritated by the mention of two camps at the top of the Labour party split over whether Labour should expect employers to pay a living wage (surely a no brainer); or support 'small' businesses receiving welfare hand outs from the tax payer to subsidise low wages. That this is being considered as a policy option indicates how the Labour party leadership continues to think that business should be appeased regardless of its appalling behaviour. And says everything about how One nation is merely an attempt to stitch together an election winning coalition but is without thought about how a Labour government can begin to deal with neo liberalism and the toxic effect it has had on our society over the last thirty years.

Gary Elsby said...

For 12 years and 10 Months of a 13 year PFI Labour stint, it had no 50p tax rate.

Why should the Tories be any different?

Don't be misled or misinformed by the soundbites coming out of Labour HQ.

Ed Miliband is basically apologising for his 13 year career by blaming 'empty Tories' for wrecking the Country.

Gary Elsby said...

I think it should be noted that a soon to be evicted Labour Government, deliberately put a ball,chain and handcuffs onto any incoming Tory Chancellor who wouldn't dare remove a 50p top rate tax on the rich.

Labour would jump up and down for days about rich friends being rewarded by the Bullingdon boys.

Utter crap politics.
No foresight and no guts.
Pure opportunism.

It's also noted the word 'class' being used by your 'brother A'.
Now let me guess????

It's also noted that an attempt at proper politics was made regarding the dilemma of offseting wage levels with tax credits.
Dammned if you do and dammned if you don't.

Oh so easy for the critic to offload a lifetimes burden of low pay onto the business owner, as though the business has just come into some extra money (listening Boffy?).
Flush the business with cash and tax credits can go. But for the last decade and for this decade and possibly the next, it is a simple way to redistribute wealth from the centre (the Tories).

There are other ways that the burden of credits can be removed from Central Government and put back onto the business sector, which I'm sure, could make just as much sense.

Your meeting was to thrash out the idea of One Nation ( a coming together trick used by various persuasions when in opposition).

At your next meeting, you will put on the agenda: 'How to re-distribute wealth without burdening business'.
If only to see brother 'A' have a cardiac.

I guarantee you a more lively meeting where adventure and social economics come together properly.

Challenging 'trickle down' isn't a new concept and watching the Tories on my fence is quite amusing.

1.They spend more than Labour
2.They spend more than Labour on welfare.
3.They spend more on benefits.
4.They borrow more (Ed Balls???)
5.The £ weakens.
6.They cut the defecit.
7.Increase Tax thresholds.

Ed Balls bangs on about the Tories 'must do this and that'.

They actually are.

Phil said...

The tricky question, JK, is what to do about small businesses. Through accident and design there are many more start-ups out there. How can a government ensure they grow and employ more people? Pegging the minimum wage at the rate of the living wage would be difficult for many small businesses to swallow, so what to do?

Incidentally, this should not be an excuse for big businesses to evade paying their workers decently.