Ed Miliband’s speech to Labour Party conference today, Tuesday, saw him embrace the old Tory idea of “One Nation” and compare himself to Victorian Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.
Right wing commentators have been stunned by the audacity of Miliband’s smash-and-grab raid on Tory history. Miliband used the phrase “One Nation” an incredible 46 times in his speech. At times it felt like it was in every second sentence.
For Disraeli, One Nation Conservatism was about mixing pro-business policies with a bit of paternalistic social reform. For Miliband, One Nation Labourism is presumably about taking his already mild reformism and watering it down with more Tory policies.
In the 19th century the One Nation idea was a reaction to Tory fears of workers’ militancy. Ripped out of that context, it is little more than a right wing appeal to patriotism. It certainly retreats from class politics by arguing that bosses’ and workers’ interests are the same.
This might explain why, in front of a blue British flag-based backdrop, Miliband said he would be “tough” on public spending and defended “a later retirement age”.
And in a coded attack on the unions, he added, “There is no future for this party as the party of one sectional interest of our country.”
Despite celebrating the multiracial Olympics, he attacked migrants, saying they “undercut workers already here”. He gave into myths peddled by the right wing media by pledging to “stop recruitment agencies saying they’re just going to hire people from overseas”.
And he again lectured unemployed people that “they have got a responsibility to take the work that is on offer”.
Under pressure from within the party, Miliband did pledge to repeal the government’s NHS bill. He got the loudest round of applause of the speech as soon as he said the letters “NHS”.
He also claimed he would “sort out” the banks. But there was little else concrete, apart from the idea of a new baccalaureate, and a peculiar pledge to end quarterly results reporting for companies.
Miliband spoke for an hour without notes—a feat that is impressive to politicians and no one else. Much of the focus was on his own personal “story”, and his schooldays.
While Miliband talked a lot about his upbringing, he only hinted at the fact that his father was a Marxist. But he was right when he said, “He would have loved the idea of Red Ed. But he would have been a little disappointed it wasn’t true.”