As the old adage went, the Tories used to be the party of the nation and Labour the party of class. Indeed, the term ‘One Nation’ is an old Tory favourite. Benjamin Disraeli’s description of Victorian Britain in Sybil, his 1845 novel, describes a society divided between the extreme rich and equally extreme poor. It was a compelling literary attempt to address the more undesirable impacts of industrialism, namely the problems of urban poverty and widening social inequalities.
But things change. Nowadays, to many, the Tories steadfast adherence to the Thatcherite Treasury views of the 1980s makes the older ‘One Nation’ sentiment more anachronistic. Indeed, bankers seem oblivious to the big society.
It seems Labour would be wise to pinch the erstwhile Tory ideal while they can. And Ed Miliband is giving it his best shot, toughening Labour’s position on The City compared to his New Labour comrades in the 1990s. Following the row over the latest round of bank bonuses and the withdrawal of Fred Goodwin’s knighthood, he has invoked One Nation sentiment in relation to banks and their moral obligations to regions, business, family and individuals. Ed is not as politically shrewd as a Peter Mandelson, but he knows ‘bank-bashing’ (certainly not the sovereign prerogative of Labour) is popular with voters of various political persuasions. A recent YouGov poll broadcast on Newsnight last week, provided compelling evidence of a national and non-partisan dislike of banking, with no variation between Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory voters.
Will this help Labour? Surprisingly, it does not look that way, though it is not for lack of trying. The odd reality that the supposedly fat-cat-backing Tories have beat them to it. Even with the likes of Cameron and Osborne at the helm – hardly working-class heroes – the Tories are riding high. Cameron’s clarion call for ‘moral capitalism’ has resonance with the public and Osborne’s ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’ is still preferable to the less expansionary fiscal contraction of the Miliband/Balls team.
For now, it seems Labour still cannot bury its recent New Labour past. Ed Miliband’s toughness on banking does look a little incredulous given his closeness to Gordon Brown’s Treasury. The Coalition can easily point to Miliband’s silence on banking reform when in government, highlighting the hypocrisy of his change of heart – true or not. At last week’s PMQs, Cameron gleefully retorted that, ‘the issue for the honourable gentleman is why he is in favour now in opposition for things he never did in government; some might call it opposition, some might call it hypocrisy’. Indeed it was the Blair government that knighted Goodwin in June 2004 for ‘services to banking’.
Nevertheless, in the long run, despite the Tories success in framing the ideological narrative in terms of spending cuts, reducing the deficit and cleaning up New Labour’s economic mess, the ideological terrain of fairness, excessive bonuses and inequality is Labour’s ground. I reckon Ed just needs time. But how long Labour can play the long game remains unclear. The next election is not that far away, and according to Ben Jackson, a lecturer at University College, Oxford and Gregg McClymont MP, Miliband can ill-afford to allow Labour to fight the next election on Tory terrain.
If it works, how ironic (and confusing) would it be for Miliband to turn the tables by using the Tories One Nation theme. As time goes on perhaps One Nation and antipathy towards bankers can give him a stable platform, exposing the uneasy relationship between conservatism’s penchant for ‘the community’ (i.e. Big Society) and Thatcherite neoliberalism. Miliband could go further to substantiate his claims by talking more about Labour inspired solutions, including proposals to establish community banks and a state investment bank. But overall, using the inclusive language used by pre-Thatcherite Tories as opposed to the anachronistic language of Old Labour social democracy and the managerial language of New Labour may allow Miliband to connect his party’s electoral interests with the national interest.
Matthew Lakin is an Oxford DPhil student in Politics.