On Saturday 12 January 2013, Labour leader Ed Miliband made a speech to the Fabians that reiterated his new ‘One Nation Labour’ theme. It was a somewhat vacuous, policy-light speech if the truth be told. But it did help clarify what ‘One Nation’ means, at least in Ed Miliband’s thinking.
One Nation essentially means two things. First, it is a sort of social contract that Ed Miliband hopes will be sealed between the Labour Party and British society, whereby a future Labour government will support and align itself with the efforts of British people to create prosperity and improve their lives and those of others. By virtue of this, a sense that everyone is genuinely ‘in it together’ is fostered, because the government recognises and supports the efforts of all as part of a collective endeavour to create a more wealthy and caring society: “One Nation Labour is based on a Britain we rebuild together. That means sharing the vision of a common life, not a country divided by class, race, gender, income and wealth. . . . We can only build that kind of society, where we share a common life, if people right across it, from top to bottom, feel a sense of responsibility to each other”.
As this quote suggests, the second thing ‘One Nation’ is about is, precisely, governing and building up Britain as (if it were) one nation: “its real potential, and what I want to talk about today, comes when we understand the deeper lesson for the way we run our country. Turning this spirit of collective endeavour, of looking out for each other, from something we do in our daily lives, to the way our nation is run. That is what One Nation Labour is about. Taking the common decency and values of the British people and saying we must make it the way we run the country as well”.
Running Britain as one nation in turn means two things: 1) overcoming key divisions in British society (e.g. those of class or wealth) that turn Britain into ‘two nations’: those who benefit from the way the country is presently run and those who don’t. For example: “Britain is in danger of having two nations divided between those who own their own homes and those who rent”; and 2) imagining the nation or country as a single entity – Britain – to which the action of the government applies uniformly.
It is in this latter respect that we are in familiar New Labour territory, despite the concerted attempt Miliband makes in the speech to differentiate One Nation Labour from both New and Old Labour: to position it as a political movement that takes all that was ‘good’ about New Labour – particularly, its emphasis on markets and wealth creation – but attempts to spread the benefits from, and participation in, wealth creation more evenly throughout society. But as far as the One Nation involved in this project is concerned, this is still imagined exclusively as ‘Britain’. The effect of this is to gloss over the real divisions between the way England is governed (as if it were Britain), and the way the devolved nations are governed: differences which need to be overcome if Britain is truly to be run as One Nation rather than effectively two – England and the rest.
For example, of higher education Miliband says: “a young woman came up to me recently and told me she had decided to go to University in Holland because she said she couldn’t afford to do so in Britain”. Within Miliband’s One Nation narrative, the predicament of this student is explained as being due to high tuition fees “in Britain”, meaning that, increasingly, only the wealthier sections of society can afford to go to university: ‘two nations’. But of course, the real division within ‘Britain’ in respect of higher education is between, on the one hand, English residents, who face tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year, and Scottish residents, who pay nothing, and Welsh and Northern Irish residents, who pay much less than English students. So in this instance, because Miliband imagines and refers to the ‘One Nation’ only as Britain, this means the issue of high tuition fees can be engaged with only as a question of economic and social divisions within a uniform ‘Britain’, rather than also as a division between ‘one nation’ within the United Kingdom – England – and the others.
If Miliband really wants to govern Britain as a One Nation prime minister, as he claims he does in this speech, then he will have to engage with discrimination against the English resulting from the fact that the UK is no longer governed as one nation as a result of devolution. Consequently, in the area of higher education, English students pay vastly higher fees even if they wish to go and study in Scotland. That’s not One Nation; and that is the reason why the doubtless English-resident student Miliband refers to feels she has no alternative other than to go abroad, because if she wants to study outside England but in another UK country (Scotland, say) she’ll still be stung to the tune of £9k.
Now, Miliband’s speech does discuss the issue of devolution and the potentially discriminatory treatment of England that flows from it – but not in a way that will satisfy those who wish to see England recognised as a nation with its own parliament and government: “If devolution to Scotland and Wales is right, so it must be right that the next Labour government devolves power to local government in England”. That’s it: no option of ‘devolution to England’ to achieve parity with Scotland and Wales. No, “the next Labour government” intends to devolve power only to “local government in England”.
What this means in detail isn’t made clear; but what it means for sure is that Labour is ruling out any tier of devolved, English-national government and any recognition of England as a nation: England will continue to be governed by the Labour government as (if it were) Britain; and Labour will continue to refer to ‘national’ issues as relating to ‘Britain’ even when they relate only to England, as in the example of higher education discussed above. Consequently, and ironically, the Labour government will fail to be a true One Nation government, because England will continue to be treated differently and discriminatorily compared with the rest of the UK, while Labour will continue to deny this by referring to ‘England’ as if it were the whole of Britain, enabling it to ignore the ways in which it is not.
So you heard it first here, folks: Labour is planning to carry out ‘local devolution’ in England if it comes to power at the next election. Whether this means a return to the model of devolution to English ‘regions’ that was so decisively rejected by voters in the ‘North-East’ in 2004; or whether this involves some other form of transfer of power in policy areas such as health care, education, planning, etc. to English cities, unitary authorities and counties is as yet unclear. But it does mean that England will continue not to be treated as a nation and indeed will be dismantled still further as a nation, with social policy for England no longer being articulated, co-ordinated and implemented at a national, English level. Indeed, England will be divided between ‘British’ government in strategic and economic matters, and local government in social-policy matters: One Nation Britain means two-nation, or rather no-nation, England – divide and rule.
In this respect then, if only for England, One Nation Labour appears very much to be a continuation of bad old New Labour.