East meets Westminster: Is One Nation Labour too complex a gimmick?

Should Labour leader Ed Miliband make his message more simple?

Should Labour leader Ed Miliband make his message more simple? - Credit: PA

Poor old Ed Miliband - he cannot seem to get his message right, writes Richard Porritt.

Goodness knows he is trying to connect with the electorate – whether it be from bashing the Old Etonians on the front bench opposite him in the Commons or from a soapbox in towns up and down the nation.

And yet his only really big idea, the umbrella under which he hopes to pull all his policy ideas ahead of the next general election, is looking rather leaky.

“One Nation Labour” screams all the branding whenever Mr Miliband makes a speech - but does anyone have the faintest clue what on earth he is banging on about?

It was famous Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who first coined the phrase “one nation” to describe his new blend of conservatism. His vision was a society where the upper classes understood their role and placed a paternal arm around the less fortunate.

In fact it is only relatively recently that the Conservative Party has been associated with individualism and the “nasty” tag so highlighted by the grotesque Spitting Image puppets of the Thatcher era.

Since David Cameron clambered to the helm of his party, trendy Tories have been falling over themselves to declare “I am a one nation Conservative” – even the PM himself dedicated a section of the 2010 manifesto to One World Conservatism in a bid promote international aid. And to be fair to him even though he is now battle scarred and power weary he has stuck resolutely to that pledge.

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The Tories have turned their backs notably on the one nation thesis on two previous occasions, firstly in the late 19th Century with the rise of consumerism and the free market and, of course, when Margaret Thatcher led the charge of the so-called New Right.

But whereas Mr Disraeli thought those in need should be helped by the state to help themselves, Baroness Thatcher wanted to force people to find their own way – almost completely on their own. She believed the way to cure the country’s ills was to return to old fashion work ethics and shift away from Keynesian economic theories and the cosy, cuddly welfare state.

Now, as the waves of austerity have battered the nation they have also washed away Mr Cameron’s one-nation ideals. Policies like the bedroom tax and universal credit would not have been supported by Mr Disraeli, supposedly Mr Cameron’s favourite politician.

And so cue flickering light bulb above Labour party strategists’ heads – One Nation Labour. On paper it is a stroke of genius, It says “we care and want to help those less fortunate” but it adds “you will have to want to help yourself”. And putting that so sacred of slogans among the new breed of Tory next to the word Labour will also get right up their noses.

And it will not have escaped Mr Miliband’s attention that using a Tory notion will also have calmed nerves among the right of the party terrified that if he was to get in he would immediately hoist the Red Flag over Downing Street before taking everything that moved under state control.

So why then is a still influential wing of the party so against it?

One of the most successful and engaging politicians of recent decades is former US President Bill Clinton. Put the scandals to one side and focus on his ability to sharpen a nation’s mind and even to bring together voters from both sides of the spectrum into a middle ground.

Surely Mr Miliband and his gang of political masterminds have studied the 1992 US election where Mr Clinton dumped an unpopular sitting right-wing president from power? Then they should know that the answer to why their current slogan – or fad maybe? – does not work is simple: It’s the economy, stupid.

That sentence became the de facto campaign slogan for Mr Clinton after one of his advisers used it on sign meant only for internal eyes. It struck home. And that is where Mr Miliband should be fighting the Tories.

One former Labour figure told East meets Westminster there were some whispers about Mr Miliband’s performance as the dust settled after the local elections. He said: “Does not quite work the one nation thing – does it? Firstly, and this will be a shock to people immersed in the Westminster bubble, the notion of One Nationism means absolutely not-a-dot to the vast, vast majority of the electorate.

“The man on the street, the chap whose vote Mr Miliband desperately needs has no idea what One Nation means – it is a like telling a joke in Latin at a working men’s club. The idea behind it is sound enough and moving in to the gap in the centre vacated by the Tories now they are in power is clever as well. But we need to be less subtle about it.”

Mr Miliband claimed in a recent speech to Think Tank Progress that under the One Nation banner would come a credible alternative to address Britain’s economic woes.

He vowed that under Labour there would be a “long-term” plan rather than a bid to make a “fast buck”. When quizzed about what exactly these policies are he trots out “more jobs for young people, building projects ...” A-level economics at best in all honesty. But it is not because they do not have a serious plan, the opposition are holding on to the detail for the time being. It would not, of course, be in their interest to blab their trump cards with two years before the ballot box.

But what he and his party must do sooner rather than later is prove that they are tough enough for the economic rumble which will still face any government, whatever colour, coming into power post 2015.

Those who voted Tory in 2010 did so despite their plans for cuts and austerity – they had the stomach for it back then. Labour need some of those votes. They need to be universally tough talking under that One Nation slogan.

Gimmicks, however clever, do not win elections. The “New” Labour tag got the resurgent party of the mid-1990s noticed but it was the policies, ideas and flair that got them elected. Mr Miliband should take note and simplify his message.