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‘One Nation: a country where everyone has a stake. One Nation: a country where prosperity is fairly shared. One Nation: where we have a shared destiny, a sense of shared endeavour and a common life that we lead together.’ So runs Ed Miliband’s vision of ‘One Nation’ Britain, a country strengthened by its ethnic diversity and united in the face of economic hardship. It is a phrase lifted from the annals of Conservative Party heritage and represents an audacious challenge to the right’s hallmarking of patriotism. But what does Miliband intend to do with this public support? Will he, a man complicit in the disastrous New Labour project, genuinely construct a fairer, more inclusive nation – or is ‘One Nation’ just the rhetorical cover for Miliband’s attempt at piloting the same, unjust socio-economic model?
In a society defined by crippling inequality and governed by a self-serving elite the idea of ‘One Nation’ is currently nothing more than an abstraction. Today, there are two Britains. One, consisting of a very small number of people, holds the keys to wealth and power. Another, consisting of a very large number of people, is disenfranchised – disenfranchised by a political and electoral system that doesn’t represent their will. The need for a politics that embraces the disenfranchised is self-evident.
Miliband’s speech contrasts his own background (and state school education) with a searing and accurate critique of the coalition government. These two themes, his potential and the coalition’s insufficiency, are united with the rhetoric of ‘One Nation’ – the alternative he would provide. The problem is that, in this alternative, the core essence of the outdated consensus remains. Miliband reluctantly tells us that many of the coalition’s cuts would not be reversed under Labour. He tells us that ‘to be One Nation, we have got to live within our means’ – and points out that this means reducing welfare and making people work longer. In ‘One Nation Britain’ the welfare state will be subordinated to deficit reduction. We would have to work harder and expect less.
To balance this Miliband offers to repeal the government’s attempt at privatising the NHS, and pledges that he ‘would never cut taxes for millionaires and raise them on ordinary families’. This is commendable, but it still remains that a disproportionate burden would be placed on the poor.
In fact, it is in his silence that Miliband really speaks. For all his eloquence the pledge to raise taxes on the wealthiest in society never actually comes out. To ask for more from the most able to give is key to the concept of a fair society, and Miliband fails to deliver. His silence in the face of truly devastating cuts to welfare is, in itself, a condemnation of Miliband as a politician and as a person. The ‘reforms’ of the Department of Work and Pensions, and their agent the French IT firm ATOS, are currently pushing thousands of voiceless disabled people into poverty, and many into suicide and death.
Miliband would, overall, be a better Prime Minister than David Cameron – as the implication of some measure of economic stimulus shows. The pledge to attack youth unemployment and strengthen vocational education offers, likewise, some hope for the abandoned young people of this country. However, it is not enough and Miliband’s talk of ‘One Nation’ serves the same purpose as the Conservative Prime Minister he borrowed it from – to gloss over and justify inequality.
Essentially, Miliband is Labour leader in a time of two realities. One reality is that a vision of economics as an investment in the rich, and society as something that excludes the weak, has been undercut by the recession. At the moment, some of this system’s worst vestiges – a faith in the power of the wealthy to generate and share wealth, a vague acceptance of the need to cut spending and the public misconceptualisation of benefit claimants as benefit cheats – remain. Vociferous dissection and opposition on the public stage could constitute the final shove against this constricting social shape. The other reality is that the coalition is hated, and is losing support as the nation realises its skewed priorities and glaring incompetence.
Manipulation of either of these realities could win Labour the next election. However, only a systematic repeal of Thatcherite economics can fix Britain. Miliband has chosen to win the election, but to retain the system of inequality – albeit while curtailing some of its excesses. He is frightened of opposing those last accepted bastions of the outdated ideal. This is not enough. He thinks that the public has nowhere to go. Labour are not the alternative – they are part of the problem.