I'm so Dizzy, claims Miliband
- 2 October 2012
- From the section UK Politics
Unlikely as it may seem, the leader of Labour Party has placed a long dead Tory peer at the heart of his politics.
The Earl of Beaconsfield was prime minister twice, a Jewish-born Anglican convert of Portuguese origins with a predilection for writing romantic novels.
But he also came up with a rather nifty political idea and slogan that served the Tory party well for many years in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was the idea that Britain was divided into two nations, between rich and poor, and it was the job of a paternalistic government to unite the country into one nation.
It became known as "one-nation conservatism" and its author was Benjamin Disraeli. And today Ed Miliband shamelessly tried to steal old Dizzy's mantle for his own.
His pitch is simple: the one nation vision of Disraeli runs through the best bits of British history, through the battle against the Nazis and the creation of the NHS all the way to this year's Olympic Games. He is the only political leader, he claims, who can capture that vision and bring it to bear on Britain today, uniting a country that he claims the Tories have left divided.
Mr Miliband's argument is not just that his "one-nation" riff should be a destination for the country but it should also be a route map for a future Labour government. So from now on all the party's policies will come under a one-nation banner.
A one-nation banking system that serves not just investors but all its customers. A one-nation education system that helps not just those going to university, but those who take a vocational course instead. And so on ad nauseam
The aim of the speech was clear: to shift Labour into the middle ground of British politics, a space that Mr Miliband claims the Conservatives have vacated. He made a deliberate, explicit appeal to those who voted Tory at the last election, saying he understood why they gave David Cameron the benefit of the doubt.
So far so good. But there are potential difficulties with this approach:
1) Other politicians have already claimed Disraeli for their own. Such as, er, Tony Blair and Boris Johnson and John Major and Chuka Umunna and, oh yes, David Cameron. In interviews, Mr Cameron frequently cites Disraeli as his favourite Conservative.
2) How many voters have the first idea who Disraeli is? And, to many voters, the United Kingdom is made up of four nations, not one.
3) The danger is that one-nation Labourism becomes a catch-all phrase into which all policies are bundled, and the meaning of the phrase becomes diluted simply to mean policies that Labour favours. Slogans minted for conferences often have a habit of dying a slow death.
4) It is easy to argue for one nation - who is going to argue for two? - but it is harder to argue for the tough stuff that any future government will face. The one-nation thesis does not appear to say much about what spending a Labour government would cut or what taxes it would raise. Does one-nation Labourism tell us how long it should take to cut the deficit?
5) There were no substantive new policies in this speech. This is a strategic decision by Mr Miliband. He does not wish to reveal his hand too early and give a shopping list of ideas for his opponents to copy or trash. But at some point he will have to say what Labour would do, say, to reform welfare, the health service, social care - all big-ticket items that will involve cutting spending. How will that fit into the one-nation framework?
But that said, Mr Miliband did go some way to tackling one of the questions that have been hanging above his head: could voters imagine him as prime minister? Today he gave an outstanding speech, without notes or text, a performance that was assured and confident, engaging and near-faultlessly delivered.
In the hall, there was an overwhelming sense of relief among the Labour members that they had a leader who could rise to the occasion, and appear, well, a little more prime ministerial than he has done in the past. Perhaps one day the geek may inherit the earth.