Ed Miliband's used last years Autumn conference of the Labour Party to launch his 'one nation' vision for the party and the country. It was an instant hit and its easy to see why - there was something there for both tribes within the broad church of the Labour family. Labour's left could buy into the semi-socialistic language about a Britain divided between the haves and have nots and Mr Miliband's stated desire to heal that divide. Meanwhile, for the right, there was plenty of reassuring noises that maintained Labour's commitment to a mixed economy, one in which the private sector would continue to play an important role. This speech secured his place as Labour leader until the next election, one which up until that point had been a subject of legitimate speculation.
I like alot of what Ed said, however, his terminology was problematic. I cannot hear the phrase 'one nation' without thinking of Benjamin Disraeli and obviously for a Labour activist that is not a particularly pleasant thought. Sure, the average voter will not think of that at all, but activists are the people who are charged with selling the vision on the doorstep and if they are likely to feel a little awkward about this then we have a problem. Indeed, the very fact that nobody in Mr Miliband's team thought to point out this linguistic mea culpa certainly gives me pause for thought when it comes to assessing their competence. Labour leaders have used the term before but it has never struck a chord like it has in its critique coalition and austerity Britain and no doubt this is why Mr Miliband is determined to stick with it. Shiny new ideas have come and gone under this leadership but I have the strong feeling Labour will fight the next election, whenever that maybe, as 'one nation' Labour.
So, we really should sit-up and take note when Ed makes a keynote speech on the theme like he recently did to the Fabian Society. He feels that both 'old' and 'new' Labour are old hat and in some ways this is obviously right. The watershed event was not just Labour's electoral defeat in 2010 but the global financial crash. Old Labour failed to get to grips with globalisation and the challenges it presents to an agenda which basically sees state nationalisation as a economic cure-all and for New Labour, the crash was the death knell that was always going to come. It's faith in market mechanisms and the market to regulate itself was cruelly exposed as the emperor of private sector profit and frankly absurd financial speculation was left looking as stark naked as it always was.
However, if you read what Mr Miliband says carefully you see that rather than being a decisive rejection of old and new Labour, 'one nation' Labour is an attempt to blend the two. He talks about the ability of the private sector to "energise" Britain but hits back at this very New Labour position with an old Labour critique and talks about the need to fundamentally reform the economy because the 'trickle down' effect doesn't work. This is very much an old Labour position and suggests a return to a mistrust of the market which is red in tooth and claw Labour. However, this tension exposes one of the big problems with Mr Miliband's vision, the danger that it will end up being something that means all things to everybody and eventually winds up meaning nothing to nobody, more than anything else, this is why he needs to start fleshing out some policies to go with the vision thing.
If he is serious about this vision now is the time to put some meat on the bones. Nobody is expecting him to write Labour's next manifesto. However, a handful of eye-catching policy commitments woven into the soundbite saturated vision thing speeches would not go amiss. Failing to do this would open him up to the accusation that he wants to build a new Jerusalem but has forgot to bring the concrete and mixer required to build the foundations. Currently, the main policy commitment that accompanies the 'one nation' theme is a reform of vocational education and apprenticeships which is very worthy in and of itself but it is hardly earth-shattering and it hardly does justice to the boldness of policy direction and radical nature of the spirit that Mr Miliband claims to be the main characteristics of the 'one nation' vision.
I digress slightly but only to prove a point. Mr Miliband's vision for a 'one nation' Britain and a 'one nation' Labour Party is something that he needs to be able to illustrate the meaning of in tangible terms. If he can't then Labour activists are going to be left feeling slightly awkward selling an idea with historical baggage from their perspective and the electorate are going to be left thinking the idea is motherhood and apple pie, which is nice in theory but unconvincing in practice, and if this is allowed to be the case then the strong possibility is that the voters will never return Labour or Mr Miliband back to government and he will never be able to build the kind of country he wants to see.