Well, that was a surprise, wasn’t it? Ed Milliband made his big speech to the Labour Party Conference and it wasn’t a shambles (nor even an omnishambles). Whether this was because it had intrinsic worth or we’re just used to such a poor level of political discourse remains to be seen for now. What is clear is that he has landed some rather good haymakers on the current government, the best of which was his adoption of the “One Nation” phrase.
One Nation Conservatism has been with us a long time. It took Thatcher to bleach its remains from the Tory ranks in the 1980s, when such thoughts put one very much into the camp of not “one of us”. It’s a stroke of tactical genius for Milliband to steal this from under Cameron’s nose, then rub his nose in it. It’s strategically interesting too, as it moves Labour into a definitely centrist place without being precise about exactly where that is. But with two years until an election he doesn’t have yet: that comes later. It’s also a place that Cameron tried to occupy prior to the 2010 election (successfully) but has now comprehensively retreated from in government. That Milliband has taken a traditional Conservative mindset is a neat little sidestep and not too surprising. Since 1979 Westminster politics had moved to the right. The Blair government would not have been out of place in the early 60s heard either by Macmillan or Wilson. The old left is now largely marginal in most of the debates. There are reasons for this, perhaps, but lets’ not go into them here. As a result, Milliband can do what he did yesterday, and have it received in a largely positive light.
But “One Nation” is not without risks, as Evan Davies probed a little at this morning with Milliband on Radio 4. One of the first things to be mentioned was the old chestnut: The North-South Divide. Milliband struggled to articulate how to overcome it. But we shouldn’t be too hard, people have had problems with overcoming the North South Divide since the time of the Danelaw over a thousand years ago, so it’s more than a bit unfair to bash Ed over the head with it now. You can even see it in culture and language. The words we speak and the places we live have been shaped by these differences. Even the differences between authors like Jane Austen and the Brontës vividly show the differences. The divide, however, an issue he is going to have to grapple with, because without a coherent way to address it, “One Nation” simply won’t work.
One of the major obstacles to lancing this old boil is one of mindset. Since the Thatcher years, “The North” has consistently got a bad press. It has been looked at by largely metropolitan politicians and media simply as a problem to be solved. to be sure, the North has plenty of problems, but that’s a slightly different thing. The first years of the Coalition have hit the North (and the North East specifically) very hard. Public money being spent there has been yanked away, with no discernible strategy to have an alternative in place. This is much like the situation in the 1980s: no Plan B, so the scorched earth has remained very much scorched.
The North does, however, enjoy a number of great advantages, which are not often talked about in these contexts. We are relatively resource rich. And while our weather is a touch wilder, that gives us reserves of water and other energy to utilise. Unlike the South East, we do not have the same stretching of resources. This is something the infamous wonks at Policy Exchange seemed to have forgotten in 2010 when they were looking to encourage people to move south.
If we consider the amount of money the Coalition are planning to pump into the HS2 development, which many people simply disagree with it’s not unreasonable to ask whether the marginal gains to be made by such a metroccentric project might not be better shared amongst the regions, of which the North is just one. Or even beginning the HS2 project at the other end of the country and doing London last may even help. There would be immediate gains in the construction sector and its suppliers in the regions. Or how about upgrading the A1 so that the link into Scotland (and specifically Edinburgh) cutting through the North, is a priority? Or how about major upgrades to IT infrastructure? There’s a ready, flexible labour market to tap and many acknowledged strengths. These need to be tapped. If he can even start to do this he might actually have a chance to deliver. Good luck to him.