I attended the One Nation, new, blue, radical or conservative? debate at the House of Commons on Tuesday evening with an open mind. Mary Riddell, chair of the event and columnist for the Daily Telegraph, explained that the event had been jointly sponsored by Progress and Compass. Indeed, up on the stage was a Progress banner on the right and on the left a Compass banner – and sitting in front of each respectively were Philip Collins and Maurice Glasman.
Starting the debate was Philip Collins, not the drummer from Genesis, but Tony Blair’s former speechwriter who now writes for the Times. He began with the first two words of the title: ‘One Nation’. What on earth did it mean? He suggested that it was a useful ‘jingle’ that could be useful to tie policies and announcements together as a brand. ‘Labour’s One Nation policy on Banking’ and ‘One Nation Education policy’ and even he posited the ‘One Nation car parking policy’. But that is all it seemed to be – just a jingle. Collins went to debunk the idea that it was there is in response to this moment in history; he disputed that the idea of a ‘neoliberal project’ that ran from Thatcher’s victory in 1979 till the crash of Lehman Brothers in 2008. We weren’t at some revolutionary 1789 moment. He added that it did not require historical analysis to see that we had a failing coalition government whose economic policy was in tatters and that Labour was not making any real progress in the polls against it. Instead, people were spending time talking about things like ‘the common good’ which to his mind didn’t really exist – there was good practice but not a ‘common good’ (It sounded a bit like what one iron lady said about society and I noted a few people shifting uneasily in their seats). In this context he noted Labour’s policy on regional banks all sounded very good and interesting but something told him it was unlikely to every really work.
He pushed home that the coalition had no majority mandate and it was failing but Labour was also failing capitalise on it. His analysis, and I paraphrase him here, is that Labour can mess about with lots of pipedream policies and climb the mountain to build a ‘vintage social democracy’ (‘good luck if you do’) or it could posit a more serious alternative management of the country and the economy.
Glasman, in contrast to Collins’ ‘just get on with it’, felt that the problems were deeper rooted. That there was such a thing as the ‘common good’ and that ‘One Nation’ did have resonance. He said that Labour needed to engage in the ‘redistribution of power and responsibility’ and reverse the ‘degradation of place’ that has occurred. Ie to give people locally a sense of power and freedom of action. While Glasman felt that this wasn’t a revolutionary point it was a point for change. This current government, he suggested, were at the ‘fag-end’ of the last political era. His definition of blue Labour or One Nation wasn’t that clear to me, but it seemed to resonate with building on British virtues and traditions of family and place, among others. One way of achieving this was a look at what has happened to our common institutions. Not, presumably, just the nationalised ones like the NHS as he gave the example of building societies and mutual (and later mentioned the innovative role that community land trusts are playing). He talked of how the Northern Counties Building Society had been founded in 1850 by workers coming together to mutually support each other in saving and building their own homes. It merged in 1965 with the Rock Building Society and was demutualised in 1997 and was then bankrupted by early 2008.
The ‘common good’, he suggested, is something that is negotiated with a ‘balance of interests’. These are ‘the users’, ‘the funders’ and ‘the workers’. Fail to negotiate with all three and then presumably you don’t get the common good (A bit like the railways, I thought). Continuing this theme Glasman talked of the need not just to mobilise support (ie get people out now) but to organise (and engage for the long term).
So, was I any the wiser? As for One Nation, I do see it as more than a ‘jingle’ but I am not convinced that it yet chimes with the population at large. As for blue Labour I realise that it doesn’t sit on the linear line between left and right. Instead it floats above that analysis and casts a shadow on some areas and shines a light on others. Collins cast a strong dose of liberal cynicism or realism and noting that dreams of a ‘vintage social democracy’ will always be that. He suggested the need to work within the current political consensus and offer a credible alternative stewardship of the economy and the government – I was thinking more 1776 than 1789. Glasman, on the other hand, felt there was a need to rebuild institutions and, by implication, build a new consensus. What all agreed on was that Labour can’t go into 2015 with the rehashed offering of 2010. I eagerly look forward to future debates and discussions.
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