Labour’s ‘one nation’ opportunity
As plenty of other voices both on this blog and elsewhere have pointed out, it has not been a great few weeks for the Conservatives. Last Monday, Baroness Warsi sought to blame the Lib Dems for the political chaos unleashed following last month’s budget, and for the battering taken by both parties in the polls as a result.
In reality though, ‘pastygate’ and the ‘granny tax’ are only the latest in a series of episodes which, like Gordon Brown’s 10p tax, have a real chance of becoming engrained in the popular imagination, changing views of the party in the long-term. In the case of the current government, that perception is that Cameron’s modernisers no longer set the agenda, and that the ‘old’ Conservatives are back.
However, although it might be convenient to encourage this view, it’s still worth remembering that in a sense, ‘true’ British conservatism has been dead and buried for 30 years now. Thatcherism killed it, replacing its values, principles and prejudices with a dogmatic ideology that continues to dominate our politics even today.
But before they were free-market radicals, the Conservatives were conservative. They believed in society: one held together by mutual obligations between all its citizens, embodied in its institutions, and stabilised by shared values and culture.
In their own self-image, they were the party of moderation, of the national interest – one which, for Disraeli, existed to ‘heal the divide’ within a fragmented society. They sought to ensure that the wealthy fulfilled their financial and moral responsibilities, that the poor had access to the means to ‘better’ themselves, and that the nation’s roads, schools, hospitals, railways and other core infrastructure were, as the engines of prosperity, properly maintained and invested in. While Labour and the Liberals were bound by interests of class or ideology, these Tories governed for the national good.
Of course, these lofty claims would have rung hollow for the millions of people excluded by Conservative governments throughout the 20th century. The slogan of ‘One Nation’ was too often used as self-justification by a dying aristocracy whose own understanding of the nation’s culture and core institutions was incapable of adapting to post-war social change. But for all its weaknesses, we should never forget that, for over a century, British Conservatives instinctively believed these things of themselves, and that many still do.
The opportunity for Labour lies in exposing the contradiction between the Conservatives’ continued pretensions to be the party of ‘One Nation’, and their leadership’s obsession with marketisation and privatisation as the cure-all for the nation’s ills. In an economic environment that calls for activist government with a long-term strategy and sense of moral mission, today’s Conservatives find their hands tied by an ideology that prevents them from acting in the interests of the same institutions and values that conservatives have always believed in.
Whereas conservatism historically prided itself on its stewardship of our national institutions, today’s ideologues seek to abdicate responsibility to the market. Where they might have once taken patriotic pride in championing assets such as the NHS, Royal Mail, BBC, and the nation’s railways, today’s Conservatives strip them back and sell them off. Where family and community were once sacrosanct, today’s onservatives find themselves championing cuts to child benefit, closing local libraries and pulling the plug on youth groups and day centres.
The tension between the Tory grassroots and its Thatcherite leadership was thrown into sharp relief by Caroline Spelman’s proposals last year to put sections of the nation’s forests up for sale. One can imagine the likes of Disraeli or Churchill being appalled – as many natural Tories indeed were- at the sight of a Conservative government attempting to make a fast buck by selling off our ancient forests to, as The Daily Telegraph put it, ‘supermarkets and sleazy bankers’.
On the surface of it, the leftie environmentalists and Countryside Alliance traditionalists that came together to fight the proposals had little in common. However, what they did share – in contrast to the Conservative leadership and Clegg’s orange bookers – was an instinctive understanding of the forests’ non-financial value, a suspicion of the vested interests clamouring to take them over, and a belief in the government’s role in protecting them in perpetuity.
And that’s the point. Valuing family, community and cultural heritage, and wanting to see them shielded from the worst excesses of global neoliberalism does not make one ‘Old Labour’, or ‘Blue Labour’ or indeed a Conservative. Rather, these are values that can connect the Labour party to ordinary people across the country – from the Tory shires to Bradford West. They are the values, as Chuka Umunna and Ed Miliband have put it, of ‘One Nation Labour’.
The death of One Nation Conservatism has long left a void in British politics that Labour can, and should fill. But that does not mean repeating its mistakes. Our understanding of our national culture, of faith, of concepts such as the family, and the value we attach to national institutions needs to be as inclusive and as diverse as modern Britain. A politics based on a narrow, 1950s-era understanding of ‘faith, family and flag’ will not do, nor one that panders to insularity or prejudices.
Above all else, we must continue to accept and harness the power of a market economy, while proudly asserting that there are people, places and institutions whose value goes far beyond that which can be quantified in economic terms. It is that fundamental idea – one embraced by ordinary people of all stripes, but abandoned by the modern Conservative party – around which the next great electoral coalition will be built.