One Nation Labour and the abandonment of politics

Like many others, I’ve found the concept of One Nation Labour elusive.  The term is deployed in almost every utterance from senior Labour politicians, but its meaning remains obscure.  Like everyone who has studied nineteenth-history politics, I’m familiar with the origin of the phrase One Nation in reference to Tory politics and Disraeli, and it is a phrase that has been used predominantly on the centre-right – usually as a signifier for a more socially-liberal form of Toryism.  In this context it’s worth noting that the phrase originates from a scene in Disraeli’s early novel Coningsby in which an aristocratic  character realises that the gilded world in which he lives is not all there is – and that the poor exist too:  two nations – the rich and the poor.  The use of the phrase “One Nation” was designed to demonstrate that there need not be conflicts of interest between the rich and the poor – and therefore, ironically enough, originates in a denial of what most Labour people have argued for most of that party’s history.

Labour has obviously seen an attraction in seizing this piece of language from the Right as our society becomes more obviously unequal and divided.  Fortunately Jon Cruddas has, in a  widely-trailed speech to the Resolution Foundation, sought to set out a strategic vision for One Nation Labour, answering – if obliquely – the question of what Labour is for.  It’s a fascinating, eloquent read – but frustrating, because of what it does not cover.  It is in those omissions that we perhaps get closest to what One Nation Labour really means.

Cruddas’ paper is entitled Earning and Belonging, and he states at the outset that these two verbs are the building blocks of Labour’s policy review – and that they shine a light on what Labour has lost.  He contrasts them with a Labour policy paper of 2005 which sought to answer the question “what is Labour for” with the verbs earning and owning; a position which puts consumption at the heart of Labour aspiration. Cruddas (in my view rightly) argues that this reductivist view simply does not express the richness of the Labour tradition – it ignores community and the progressive instinct, and points out how the need to recapture a dialogue about community, important though it is, flirts dangerously with the reactionary.  But Cruddas argues eloquently about how Labour’s – I’d go further and say the English left’s – roots lie in mutualism and points out how many of Labour’s salient campaigns today continue to display that mutualistic and communitarian urge.

It is, as I have said, a powerful and attractive narrative.  Implicit in much of this is the need to reach out to an electorate that is disillusioned by process; on the one hand battered by the market, on the other deeply suspicious of what Cruddas describes as state managerialism.

But there are huge omissions.  There is not a syllable about the environment – whether in terms of the big issues of climate change or the more local issues about urban liveability and public space.  There is no real consideration of what the state is for.  And, beyond a couple of platitudinous sentences about the pointlessness of opposing cuts without an alternative,  nothing about the economy.

It is in the latter that One Nation Labour looks most like a tactic of avoidance.  Austerity economics is clearly failing; not only is it destroying living standards, in particular of the most vulnerable – even on its own terms it is simply failing to deliver the objectives of reducing the deficit and promoting economic growth.  Not only is the confidence fairy nowhere to be seen, but Labour is quite explicitly promising more austerity to come; a commitment to keeping the Coalition’s cuts and possibly making more.  Cruddas’ eloquent generalities about earning and belonging are conducted in the shadow of Ed Balls’ great clunking fist.  It’s ironic that if ever there is a figure in Labour’s past who could be seen as emphasising the One Nation tradition it is Keynes – whose writings were inspired by a need to rescue capitalism from the idiocies of its most fervent supporters and to create a stable society in which the benefits of wealth were spread.  Ed Balls seems intent on repeating the errors that Keynes excoriated.

And it seems clear that a deeper consideration of economic priorities is off the agenda.  Austerity, it appears, is assumed – but the narratives surrounding it appear to be falling into disrepute, as the economy continues to tank, living standards fall and the hope that this might be a simple recession preceding a return to business as usual looks increasingly untenable.  There is no recognition that this time it might be different – that, for example, we may be in the throes of a long-term depression like that at the end of the nineteenth-century (with the irony that Labour partly grew out of a realisation that the conventional politics of the time was simply not equipped to deal with that).  In this context, Cruddas’ review of Labour’s traditions is notably incomplete; redistribution and the use of the power of the state to achieve economic policy ends has always been central to Labour’s view of the world.  Everybody knows that the post-war Attlee government founded the NHS; most people know that it nationalised key industries like coal and steel; fewer know that it presided over the most significant redistribution of wealth from rich to poor undertaken in British history, and realise the way in which the experience of total war – in which trade unions and government worked together to provide the means for victory – shaped the debate about economic priorities.  Of course economic priorities and structures have changed – but one does not have to deny that fact to recognise that this very significant piece of Labour history is wholly absent from Cruddas’ survey.  And the time when the failure of market economics (explicitly recognised in Cruddas’ comments about housing) is all too clear, such an omission looks like a major piece of evasion.

As does the failure to ask questions about the boundary between public and private – it is hinted at in Cruddas’ comments about voluntarism, and it’s notable that he recognises the difficulty of this area, but it’s a pity that at a time when other thinkers on the Left are seeking to rediscover the Courageous State,  One Nation Labour appears incapable of moving beyond generalisations about state managerialism.  At one level, the coalition years can be seen as an experiment in the withdrawal of the state – and it is obvious that the consequences are disastrous (not least because the tired rhetoric about the Big Society fails to recognise the extent to which the voluntary sector and the state were already working closely together – it is ironic that the withdrawal of the state has decimated parts of the voluntary sector).  There is a serious debate to be had about the role of the state and the voluntary sector, and how such a relationship can be made more democratic and accountable.  On the basis of Cruddas’ comments that is not really a debate that One Nation Labour appears to want.

And alongside that sit crucial economic issues – the question of whether that collapse in living standards and growth in inequality is arising out of the pursuit of paper growth, and the way in which we fail to ask questions about the purpose of economics and the relationship between growth and prosperity when we continue to deplete the world’s resources at a wholly disproportionate rate  (a reminder here too that the traditional internationalism of the Left appears to have little place in this dialogue.

These omissions are important, and drive one towards the conclusion that One Nation Labour is not so much a slogan (although it is undoubtedly that) as a catalogue of omissions; a refusal to join a debate about the most important economic issues of the day.  Politics is about the big issues, or it is nothing – and policy reviews, important as they are, deal with the detail of implementing a larger political vision. Labour once sought to debate big issues of capital, of wealth, of distribution and of economic structure – indeed, as a Party it grew out of a recognition more than a hundred years ago that the polity of the day did not provide the framework for such a debate.  It is perhaps ironic that One Nation Labour seems to be represent a recreation 0f that political failure.

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4 thoughts on “One Nation Labour and the abandonment of politics

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