Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’: What should it mean?

By James Aisthorpe

Ed Miliband’s speech at the Labour Party conference in Manchester last week is perhaps best described as triumphant. It was met by rapturous applause by the Labour faithful and Ed was affable, clear and confident while speaking ‘without notes’. Labour MP Tom Watson called it ‘the best leader’s speech’ he had ever heard.

Certainly it was not a speech that is going to be skipped over by the history books, particularly if Labour should win the next general election. Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ speech could well emerge as a pivotal point in the development of UK politics. It was that good.

It was of course, as many commentators have already noted, quite audacious to co-opt the term ‘One Nation’, two words which together are traditionally associated with the Tories, but we’re certainly going to be hearing a lot more about it. Undoubtedly ‘One Nation’ is primed to become the flagship policy of the Labour Party for at least the next two years.

So what is ‘One Nation’? Well, that’s the thing, we’re not really that sure. Ed’s speech was a little devoid of policy and so, right now, ‘One Nation’ seems a little…vacuous. Exactly what ‘One Nation’ is and how it translates in to real policy is something that the Labour Party need to articulate and disseminate quickly.

Failing to add substance to the ‘One Nation’ theme would be to repeat the mistakes of the Conservative Party and their ‘Big Society’ initiative. Relaunched on four separate occasions, ‘Big Society’ sounded all fluffy and wonderful but in truth, like a cloud, it was vaporous. As Conservative MP Jo Johnson (that’s right, Boris’s brother) put it, ‘Big Society’ was ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘intangible’.

‘One Nation’ needn’t be that way. ‘One Nation’ can’t be that way. It has to mean something.

As Ed Miliband noted in his speech, economic inequality is on the increase in the UK. The gap between the richest and the poorest is growing and the working class can do little but watch as the already privileged work to enlarge their piece of a stagnated economic pie.

Exorbitant bonuses for bankers who have failed to facilitate economic growth and a Prime Minister and Chancellor who have awarded themselves a 5% tax cut while forcing student tuition fees through the roof are just two examples of the ways the system and the current government have promoted inequality.

A top heavy economy, one in which money is most concentrated among a few wealthy individuals, cannot grow. As money moves from the bottom to the top overall spending naturally decreases since the rich don’t need to spend as high a percentage of their income to live comfortably as those less well off do.

So simply from an economic standpoint ‘One Nation’ must redress the economic balance if we want to see sustainable growth.

But it is not only the economic polarization that needs fixing; economic asymmetry has bred social polarization in British society. Both the upper and working class see the other as free-loaders and cheats.

Both have a case. There are those in the upper class who have used their already privileged position to make further gains. Consider the expenses scandal, tax evasion worth over £14 billion in 2010/11 and the intricate web of crooked elite relationships that have been revealed by the Leveson and Hillsborough inquiries. The working class are, quite rightly, angry.

Unfortunately when that anger boils over, when the working class and those disenfranchised by the current system protest, occupy or even riot then those who want to maintain their privilege don’t describe these actions as what they really are: a reaction against simple unfairness. Instead they label the rioters as opportunists, the occupiers as lazy, the protesters as hooligans. And many in the upper class are quite happy to accept this ill-fitting stereotype, it maintains the illusion that what they have they earned on their own rather than through the accident of birth that gave them a double-barrelled surname.

‘One Nation’ has to tackle this class divide as well as the economic divide. In many ways these ailments will require a similar medicine. Reducing inequality will reduce the friction between classes. Furthermore reducing inequality is going to help the economy as a whole.

‘One Nation’ must start by taking on those who cheat the system for personal gain. Tax evasion and benefit fraud must be treated as equal wrongs. Under ‘One Nation’ it would make sense for HMRC and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to come together and share their expertise in cracking down on people who abuse the system. We need to treat tax evasion and benefit fraud as the same crime so that participating in one cannot be rationalised by the fact that people are participating in the other. ‘One Nation’ should tell people that if you are a tax evader you are just as bad as a benefit cheat and vice versa.

Second, ‘One Nation’ must encourage economic growth through progressive taxation. Giving a tax cut to millionaires won’t grow the economy because they aren’t going to spend that money, they don’t need to, it’s going to be put away in a bank, maybe a Swiss one, and never be seen or heard from again. ‘One Nation’ should put more money in the pockets of normal working people so that they can spend it on birthday parties and trips to the seaside that they couldn’t otherwise afford. This way the seaside fish and chip shop can stay in business, grow, hire more employees, buy more fish and potatoes and help grow the economy as a whole.

Third, ‘One Nation’ must stop the war on benefits. Yes, we should make sure that people aren’t cheating the benefit system but almost everybody who claims benefits are doing so fairly. A social safety net is vital to an economy, without it people are too busy worrying about where their next meal is coming from to even consider looking for work or inventing new products. Without a social safety net J.K. Rowling could never have written the Harry Potter series.

‘One Nation’ must assure the rich that their higher taxes are not being given away to cheats but should remind them that, in the long term, they, and everybody else, can become even wealthier by helping to grow the economy rather than looking to grab a greater portion of one that isn’t growing. The working class, meanwhile, need to be shown that the wealthiest, those who have benefited the most from the system, are putting their fair share back in. The working class must also be encouraged to climb the economic ladder by a social safety net that will catch them should they fall but only if those who can get back on that ladder do.

With the correct policies ‘One Nation’ has the potential to really improve class relations and trust among people is important to an economy. The different classes no longer trust each other. Fixing that is what ‘One Nation’ should be about.

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