Owen Smith explains why he set about developing a philosophy for ‘One Nation’ Britain.
It is now a year since Ed Miliband’s speech at Labour Party Conference in Manchester, in which he audaciously stole a phrase previously associated with Benjamin Disraeli and the Conservative Party and applied it to a Labour Party hoping to return to government after just one term in opposition.
In the year since that speech, much has been written about One Nation: what it means as a political concept; how it translates into concrete policies; how it works in an era of devolution and possible separation of the nations of the United Kingdom.
I’ve written elsewhere about what One Nation means for Wales. For me it remains a crystal clear description of Labour’s mission under Ed Miliband’s leadership: unity between different groups in society, not division and fear; a fair share of the nation’s wealth for all nations and regions; opportunities for all those who play by the rules, instead of unearned rewards for a few at the top.
As well as developing policies that help us deliver this vision, Labour must also tell a story about our values, and how our political programme is anchored in people’s everyday lives and aspirations. With that in mind, Labour’s Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves and I embarked on a project to bring together a group of newly-elected Labour MPs to write about what One Nation means to us. The resulting book One Nation: Power, Hope, Community consciously does not set out a policy platform. It is a collection of essays in which the authors describe their communities, their personal stories, their motivations and their fears.
The contributions are diverse, but they share a number of common themes. Principle among these is that the resilient and resourceful people of Britain are ready, and impatient, to play their part in rebuilding our country as One Nation. The authors accept that government doesn’t have all the answers (whatever the right-wing press would have us believe about Labour’s return to seventies-style socialism) but they describe the invidious effects of inequality, exclusion and powerlessness. All have lessons that policymakers and politicians, in Wales as well as the rest of the UK, can learn from and be inspired by.
In my own chapter, I reflect on my experiences in the three years since I was elected as MP for Pontypridd. I describe how, in a town where politics flows through the community like the railway that once ran coal to Barry docks, there is now diminished trust and faith in politics. They’ve been replaced by a nagging sense of loss, apathy and sometimes anger. It is a town with a proud past, where the elegant buildings, bandstands and the lido stand testament to the efforts of the friendly societies, the co-op, the Fed and the unions. But these institutions, and the collective creed they recall, are much reduced in size and influence, as economic decline and a culture of consumerism took hold.
Yet despite the unique history of the south Wales valleys, the solutions to this crisis are the same in Ponty as elsewhere. We need to get back a sense that change is worth fighting for, that people can have control over their communities once more. Community organising is one tool for achieving this, through organisations such as Movement for Change, which is driving forward its work in Wales with the Home Sweet Home campaign to improve conditions for people renting a home. And the soon to be formed Pontypridd Citizens, modelled on similar approaches across Britain, which will bring together churches and parties, unions and residents, to determine local need and empower local leaders.
But as well as these projects, we need to fundamentally change the way we do politics. This means not just opening up political parties, but rethinking local and national government. As former council leader and now MP Steve Reed describes in his chapter, giving individual estates control over their own destiny can be transformative.
To get back that enthusiasm and belief in the power of progress, we also need action from the top, from politicians. It is our job to design the policies that speak to people’s real experiences. That’s why Labour’s focus on the cost of living crisis is so powerful. Instead of doing what George Osborne has done and congratulating ourselves at the first sign of an economic recovery, Labour is asking whether people feel the recovery in their pockets and purses. Since prices have risen faster than wages in 38 out of 39 months since David Cameron became Prime Minister, it is hardly surprising that they don’t.
We therefore need an activist state that recognises that government’s job is to intervene where markets fail, and to reshape the economy in the interests of all the people, not just a privileged few. That’s why the policies set out over the last week at Labour Party conference will speak directly to families up and down Britain. Freezing energy bills from the general election until 2017, building 200,000 houses a year, strengthening the minimum wage, providing more childcare for working parents and help for small businesses – these are the issues that people talk about in communities across the country and we are showing that Labour has the answers.
As conference season ends for another year, in the Labour Party we know we must build on these announcements and sustain the momentum right through until 2015. The book lays bare the extent of that challenge. We must refuse to accept false choices between aspiration and equality, credibility and radicalism, leadership and grass-roots reform. We know it is no small task, but One Nation Labour can and must deliver all of these.