“One Nation Labour” – New Labour-lite with a touch of Disraeli

Before his recent conference speech Ed Miliband had talked about “going beyond” New Labour, but who could have imagined he would come up with “One Nation Labour”, drawing its inspiration from 19th Century Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli? Patrick Wintour in the Guardian described Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference as “an audacious raid into Conservative heritage”. In fact it was a trick straight out of the Blairite book of “triangulation”. It was supposed to show that Labour was the “One Nation” party at the very time when the Tories under Cameron had abandoned that terrain, his “caring Conservatism”. Yet the use of such a trick is an indication that Labour under Miliband has failed to break with the politics of New Labour. In fact in the 1997 Labour Manifesto Blair said “I want a Britain that is one nation, with shared values and purpose…”

Neither Old Labour, or New Labour but One Nation Labour, said Miliband. As we shall see this ‘pitch’ is founded on an historical illiteracy probably only surpassed by Blair, the New Labour leader who believed that the founding of the Labour Party had been an ‘historic mistake’ which ‘split progressives’. The discussion about “One Nation Labour” isn’t, of course, about interpretations of history. However, Miliband’s entirely fallacious interpretation of what Disraeli stood for is important because of its implications for what he sees as the “vision” of Labour, or “One Nation Labour” today. Historical ignorance is not a crime. However, if a political leader is going to use some historical figure to illustrate what he wants to do today, then it’s just as well that he has a knowledge of the history he’s talking about. Ed Miliband’s historical ignorance, and those of his would-be advisors, shows how little they know about the history of the Labour Party, why it was founded and the forces ranged against it.

Everybody’s a patriot now!

Citing Disraeli, he said this:

“But let us remember what Disraeli was celebrated for. It was a vision of Britain. A vision of Britain where patriotism, loyalty, dedication to the common cause courses through the veins of all and nobody feels left out. It was a vision of Britain coming together to overcome the challenges we faced. Disraeli called it “One Nation”. “One Nation”. We heard the phrase again as the country came together to defeat fascism. And we heard it again as Clement Atlee’s Labour government rebuilt Britain after the war.”

This is extraordinary historical nonsense. Miliband doesn’t even mention what Disraeli is usually feted for – his social and political reforms. A commonplace interpretation of British history is one where the ever more enlightened British rulers progressively democratised the country, rather than the reality of a struggle for democracy, against oppression and exploitation. Miliband cites patriotism and loyalty and “dedication to the common cause”. Which cause was that? The “patriotism and loyalty” which Disraeli promoted was, of course, to the Monarchy, the Empire and the “British institutions”. Speaking during the debate on the 2nd parliamentary reform Bill in 1872 Disraeli was reported thus:

“Disraeli gave a dazzling performance that contrasted his own bill as a bulwark of the constitution with the complicated, flaky proposals introduced by Gladstone the previous year. His aim was not democracy, “which I trust it will never be the fate of this country to live under” (my emphasis), but rather to achieve a fair representation of society.”
(The Lion and the Unicorn – Gladstone versus Disraeli, Richard Aldous)

This was a man who was opposed to universal franchise. The “fair representation of society” he spoke of was designed to  preserve the existing institutions of the country. The “challenges we faced” were, for Disraeli, the global rivalries with the other imperialist powers. He was the man who made Queen Victoria Empress of India.

Nobody feels left out? Patently Disraeli did not want everybody to “have a stake” (or certainly not an equal one) in the country since he hoped that democracy was a “fate” which it would never have to live under.

“Two Nations”

The most often quoted words from Disraeli’s Sybil are in relation to the ‘two nations’.

“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different time zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”

Sybil was written in 1845. It was Disraeli’s political manifesto. It envisaged the glorious rise of Toryism, with guess who at its head?

“In a parliamentary sense, that great party has ceased to exist; but I will believe that it still lives in the thoughts and sentiment and consecrated memory of the English nation. It has its origins in great principles and in noble instincts; it sympathises with the lowly, it looks up to the Most High…Even now it is not dead, but sleepeth; and in an age of political materialism, of confined purposes and perplexed intelligence, that aspires only to wealth because it has faith in no other accomplishment, as men rifle cargoes on the verge of a shipwreck, Toryism will yet rise from the tomb over which Bolingbroke shed his last tear, to bring back strength to the Crown, liberty to the subject, and to announce that power only has one duty – to secure the social welfare of the PEOPLE.”

Toryism had to rise up to defeat the dreaded Liberalism. It would lead “the people”. Sybil herself was the daughter of a Chartist. He offered a dismissive judgement of Chartism.  The people could never organise anything. They would have to rely on their ‘natural leaders’ would do the job for them.

“The people are not strong; the people never can be strong. Their attempts at self-vindication will end only in their suffering and confusion. It is civilisation that has effected, that is effecting this change. It is that increased knowledge of themselves that teaches the educated their social duties. There is a dawning in the history of this nation, that perhaps only those who are on the mountain-tops can as yet recognise. You…are in darkness, and I see a dawn. The new generation of the aristocracy of England are not tyrants, not oppressors, Sybil, as you persist in believing. Their intelligence, better than that, their hearts, are open to the responsibility of their position. But the work that is before them is no holiday work. It is not the fever of superficial impulse that can remove the deep fixed barriers of centuries of ignorance and crime. Enough that their sympathies are awakened; time and thought will bring the rest. They are the natural leaders of the people, Sybil; believe me they are the only ones.”

The “new aristocracy of England” would overcome the “centuries of ignorance” and do their duty before God and for the glory of the British Empire.

In another speech,  at the Crystal Palace, in the same year as that cited by Miliband, Disraeli explained the priorities of the Tory party, “or as I will venture to call it, the National party”. The “first duty of England” was “to maintain institutions, because to them we principally ascribe the power and prosperity of the country”. The second “great object” was to uphold the Empire of England (sic)”. He bemoaned the efforts of Liberalism “to effect the disintegration of the Empire of England”.

The third priority was “the elevation of the people”. Disraeli’s motivation for his social reforms was exemplified by the “Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act” in 1875, which conceded the right to peaceful picketing. It was designed, he wrote, to “reduce the materials for social agitation”. The competition between the Tory and Liberal parties for the vote of those limited numbers of workers to whom the franchise had been extended was another big factor in the reform programme. They had to win some working class votes now. Disraeli’s ‘reformism’ was opportunist. He had opposed the Liberal government’s reform Bill which had fallen, and introduced his own, largely with the motive of splitting the Liberals’ ranks and weakening Gladstone’s position, opening the way to a majority Tory government.

In the words of a Victorian Anglican hymn (All things Bright and Beautiful) “God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate”.  He thought the country’s rulers had a responsibility to ‘her Majesty’s subjects’. But this was a static society in which each had their ‘God-given’ place. Although it relates to Italy, these words from The Leopard (Lampedusa) could equally be applied to the British rulers. “If they want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” To preserve the institutions and power of the British rulers they would have to adapt. This was the “vision” of Disraeli.

“The interests of the whole country”

What did Miliband mean by “One Nation Labour”? In his interview with Andrew Marr, he said that Labour  could not support “sectional interests” like those of the unions. They had to represent the interests “of the whole country”. It is commonplace to hear talk about the “national interest” though its meaning is rarely defined. If you think about it it is a nonsense. A political party might represent the interests of a majority, but it’s patently obvious that it can’t represent “the whole country”. A political party cannot represent the interests of employers who exploit their workers and the workers who are exploited. It cannot support the corporate tax evaders and act in the interests of the majority of the population. New Labour, of course, knighted some of these people and even brought them on board as ‘advisors’ (including the tax avoiders). It cannot represent the private companies that run the railways and the interests of the passengers, or those of potential passengers who cannot afford the price of a ticket.

Neither Old Labour nor New

Miliband said Labour “can’t go back to Old Labour”. His only rationale was that “There is no future for this party as the party of one sectional interest of our country.” Presumably what he meant was that Labour used to be ‘the party of the working class’ or the trades unions. Now it must “represent the whole country”.

It’s also right, he said, “to move on from New Labour”. Why? His critique consists of one thing. Despite “its great achievements” (undefined) it was “too silent about the responsibilities of those at the top, and too timid about the accountability of those in power”. No interest, he says, is too powerful “to be held to account”. Wow. I bet they are quaking in their boots.

What does all this mean in terms of a governmental programme which Miliband would carry out? There are a few things to pick out, though much is missing amongst the vacuous generalities. We need a “One Nation economy”. So he is going to sort out the banks, “once and for all”. “We need banks that serve the country not a country that serves its banks.” True. Miliband is right, the “high street bank shouldn’t be the arm of a casino operation”. Yet instead of declaring that Labour will separate the retail banking from investment arms, he is going to give them the chance to ‘do the decent thing’. On the basis of the practice of the financial sector over the past few decades, why? After all, even the Financial Times is in favour of separation.  So why give them the opportunity to manoeuvre and come up with some scheme to keep things as they are?

More outsourcing and privatisation?

Miliband gave the game away, so far as his warmed over Blairism is concerned when he said that the public sector has to offer apprenticeships, and then:

“…when the public sector offers contracts to the private sector the next Labour government will ensure that every private sector contract will only be awarded to a large company that trains the next generation with apprenticeships. Because when the public sector is having a contract with a private sector company, it is not just buying goods and services, it must be about building One Nation together. Public and private sectors joining together to do it.”

So “One Nation Labour” will continue with the outsourcing and privatisation of public services? This was what lead to the disaster of PFI and the bloated debts in the NHS and across the public sector. There are more questions than answers here. Take the case of the NHS. Miliband rightly condemns Cameron for having promised no top-down reorganisations and then introducing one in the NHS.

“But here’s what I hate most of all. It’s that the whole way they designed this NHS reorganisation was based on the model of competition that there was in the privatised utility industry, gas, energy and water. What does that tell you about these Tories?”

Read that carefully. He doesn’t say he is opposed to it because it is based on competition but a particular model of competition. True he does make a commitment to “end the free market experiment” and “put the right principles back at the heart of the NHS”. But what principles? It was after all, New Labour, which opened the way for the Tories by introducing competition into the NHS, even to the extent of rigging the ‘competition’ by arranging for private companies to be paid more for doing the work than NHS organisations were. Neither should it be forgotten that New Labour’s parting gift to the NHS was a £20 billion cut which the coalition government is now implementing. Yet Miliband makes not a single criticism of New Labour’s record in relation to the NHS.

What we do know of their policy in relation to the NHS is that they are proposing to leave the new Commissioning structures in place. Even if cooperation become a ‘duty’ which is reintroduced into the NHS, the Commissioning structures will still be handing out contracts. On what basis? If sharp cuts are not dispensed with then they are likely to be doled out to the lowest bidder, and even more important, there is no indication that Labour will exclude private companies from bidding. Because they have introduced ‘competition’ any attempt to exclude private providers or give NHS organisations ‘preferred bidder status’ would be in breach of European Competition law. Is “One Nation Labour” going to challenge European competition law? It doesn’t seem very likely does it?

What was missing?

Nobody would expect any Party leader to cover everything in a one hour speech. However,  every speech must be judged as much by what isn’t said as what is. There were some significant things missing in Miliband’s speech. Although he talked about training for young people he said nothing about tackling the structural jobs crisis which has resulted from the ‘flexible labour market’ and the export of jobs to countries with super-cheap Labour.

He said nothing about the crisis on the railways. Not such a surprise there as I understand that the issue or re-nationalisation was kept off of the agenda of the conference because the party leadership is resisting pressure to end the chaos that privatisation created. “One Nation Labour” has refused thus far to take such a step. It might sound too much like Old Labour?

Considering the place of housing in the crisis it’s extraordinary that Miliband said not one word about how a government with him at its head would tackle the housing crisis. That’s because “going beyond” New Labour does not include a clean break with its disastrous housing policy. Hence Jack Dromey in the parliamentary debate on housing which Labour held, defended the “right to buy” on the grounds that Labour was (still) “the party of aspiration”. No commitment as yet on building Council housing on a mass scale. That would be Old Labour.

The legacy of New Labour

For all the talk of “going beyond” New Labour, the Labour Party has failed to carry out a serious critique of it, precisely because Miliband and Balls still agree with much of it. “One Nation Labour” is a sort of rebranding and ‘positioning’. In his recent interview with the Guardian, Ed Balls was photographed with a copy of a biography of Winston Churchill ostentatiously placed on a table in the foreground of the photo; another pathetic little trick out of the book of Blair. Miliband and Balls were at the heart of New Labour and supported its politics. “One Nation Labour” is New Labour-lite with a touch of Disraeli.

Already they are talking about the possibility of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the very people who have enabled the Tories to push through their reactionary programme. Failure to break with the politics of New Labour will undermine the possibility of Labour winning an electoral majority, despite the growing hatred of the Tories and their Liberal Democrat toadies.

The coalition government has no democratic legitimacy. Nobody voted for it. It was cobbled together because the Tories failed to win the election. It is illegitimate because it is carrying out a programme which it did not put forward in the election. It is destroying the NHS after its commitment to “no top-down reorganisations”. It is dispensing with “secure tenancies” for Council tenants after committing not to change them, and turning ‘social housing’ into means-tested housing. We are facing a social disaster; misery for millions. Yet when there is any sign of struggle against the government Miliband and the party apparatus tell the unions not to strike. He has remained silent on the worsening of employment law. There are now no employment rights for two years. The trades unions and public sector workers are faced with a struggle against job losses, the worsening of their working conditions and the loss of the social gains that remain. Whilst Miliband is willing to come to the October 20th demonstration of the TUC he does not want the unions to go beyond protest.

The very idea of “One Nation” is completely out of synch with reality. At the very time when the coalition government is using the crisis to open up public services to big business and drastically eroding the rights of workers, Miliband tells us that there is a mythical “national interest”; that he is going to represent the interests of “the whole country”. It is a liberal (small l) delusion based on a false understanding of British history and a failure to face up to the disastrous consequences of Blairism and its acceptance of much of the Thatcherite ‘settlement’. What is happening now to the NHS, once the most revered of the post-war reforms, is a catastrophe for which New Labour is responsible.

Without a break with the politics of New Labour then the best that Labour can hope for is to be the leading party, with a small majority, or none at all. True, many working people will vote Labour to get rid of the Tories because the situation is so dire, but it will be without any great hope or expectation. As for the promises they make, if they don’t have a majority and go into a coalition with the Liberals, they will have an alibi for abandoning them. “One Nation Labour” should be denounced for the nonsense it is. It marks a continuation of New Labour rather than a break with it.

Martin Wicks
October 8th 2012

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2 Responses to “One Nation Labour” – New Labour-lite with a touch of Disraeli

  1. Dani says:

    Well no surprise there then! I can not see any party out there that will solve these problems as each politcal party continue with the same agenda and lies. I imagine at some stage there will be a considerable backlash from below, from the real people who are ignorant to parlimentry political bullsh*t and when this happens there will be more than just a few trainers stolen from some sports shops.

  2. […] of ‘going beyond New Labour’ his ‘innovation’ was to dream up ‘One Nation Labour‘ inspired by the bizarre example of Benjamin Disraeli, monarchist and imperialist. This […]

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