Friday, 5 October 2012

'One Nation Labour': all things to all people?

I really enjoyed Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour conference on Tuesday.  As someone who's keen on the ideas of 'Blue Labour', I felt the speech was a culmination of two years of ideas around the need for Ed Miliband to move beyond both 'New Labour' and more traditional social democratic concerns, and towards a more communitarian strand of social democracy.

But then, looking at the response to the speech, everyone seemed happy.  New Labour types starting comparing Ed to the 1994 Tony Blair.  The Labour Left celebrated his attack on the banks and promotion of the NHS.  And the more traditional, centre-left social democrats cheered on the attack on inequality and social divisions.

The broad appeal of the speech led me to think: does 'One Nation' mean all things to all people?  How is it possible, in other words, to philosophically appeal to such a broad spectrum within the Labour Party?  Was it just that people saw whatever they liked in the speech and claimed it for themselves?

These worries were confirmed when I saw this story on what 'One Nation Labour' would mean for the welfare state.  Intuitively, I thought it would involve a celebration and defence of universality and contribution and an attack on means-testing.  Means-testing is socially divisive and pits tax-paying non-beneficiaries against non-tax-paying beneficiaries.  Given that 'One Nation' is supposed to be all about reducing social divisions and uniting people, how does means-testing fit in with this concept and vision of social life?

Yet apparently, means-testing universal benefits for pensioners - such as winter fuel payments - is 'One Nation Labour'. To my mind however, rewarding pensioners for decades of work with something like a bus pass or a fuel payment is an important way for society to show an appreciation and honouring of a person's life contribution.  It says that the welfare state is for all - for 'one nation' - not just for the poor - for 'two nations'.

Ed Miliband's speech was striking in the positivity of its vision.  And successful too in baring for all the nasty divisiveness that typifies Cameron's conservatism.  Yet New Labour worked because its political philosophy matched a set of policies: investments in health and education; an 'active' welfare state; early-years support; marketization of public services.  Now, we need a clearer demonstration from Labour of how 'One Nation' relates to policy, and why.