This article titled “Miliband’s ‘one nation’, Cameron’s ‘all in this together’ – spot the difference” was written by Richard Seymour, for theguardian.com on Friday 5th October 2012 16.00 Europe/London
One nation. We are all in it together. Red Tories. Blue Labour. It is remarkable how the two main parties resemble one another in their slogans and broad ideological themes.
This may seem like nothing new. Britain’s party system has always had a pyramid structure – wide divergence at the base, close convergence at the top. Nonetheless, the obsessive attempt to produce a new political synthesis is a novel and telling feature of the current situation.
For example, Ed Miliband’s conference speech made what is widely considered a stunningly audacious bid to appropriate "one nation" themes from the Conservatives. In fact, it was a profoundly cautious, conservative speech, applauded by business. Undoubtedly Cameron, having previously raided the language of "progress", will address the Tories in a similarly hybrid manner.
The attempt to capture the terms of an opponent’s discourse is a normal strategy of politics. Look at how words like "reform" and "radical" have been used and abused. Likewise, it is typical for politicians to invent "traditions" designed to fit their needs at a particular juncture, which are then projected backward into an appropriate temporal distance.
Miliband’s reinvention of "one nation" is a case in point. There has never been a coherent "one nation" tradition in the UK, so how Miliband chose to reconstruct it is significant. He extolled Disraeli, as Cameron has done in the course of defining his "progressive conservatism". Disraeli is credited with founding the doctrine and consummating it in government after the passage of the 1867 Second Reform Act, which enfranchised millions of working-class men. Pundits who interpret this as a benign doctrine of social reform forget too easily that Disraeli’s "one nation" was white, imperialist, Protestant-supremacist and reactionary. Such a nation is both repellent and impossible today. Nonetheless, with a certain tactful historical amnesia, Miliband took pains to commend Disraeli’s patriotism, alongside his moderate reformism.
The present-day strategy that led Miliband to summon this tradition is clear. His approach is "Blue Labour" lite. Whereas Cameron’s intellectual sidekick for a brief period was a "Red Tory" interested in reviving feudal ideas of social organisation (talk about traditional ideas in a modern setting), Miliband is leaning heavily on the likes of Maurice Glasman and Jonathan Rutherford, who want to yoke traditional patriotic and family values to anti-finance populism in a communitarian mix.
Yet there is a difference between "capturing" an opponent’s ideas and being captive to them. Such ideological appropriation, where successful, fundamentally changes the meaning and context of such language. Miliband’s "one nation" does not do this. It is essentially a version of "we’re all in this together", austerity with a gloss of "fairness", Cameronism without Cameron.
This leaves us with the question of why both of the dominant parties have felt the urge to interbreed in this way, to somehow produce a new political synthesis that brings us all "together", part of "one nation"? And why now, when there are complex, intersecting processes of profound social polarisation at work, which will tend to undercut the basis for any such synthesis?
One could offer specific answers for each of the parties. Blue Labour, condensing the most backward-moving, reactionary elements of New Labour thinking, is a hegemonic movement within Labourism, outflanking the left in a circumstance in which the Blairite right in its old form is likely to be out of power for a time. It exists for the purposes of anchoring Labour’s response to austerity firmly to the right. Cameronite Toryism, on the other hand, is an adaptation to the electoral recession of the hard right after several punishing defeats inflicted on the Tories. It represents a pragmatic attempt to transform the Conservative party into an adequate party of business in the 21st century. But there are also more general factors.
On one level, "one nation" is an ideological phantom, an impossible promise that seems to address crisis and fragmentation, the loss of social solidarity, but cannot. If class divisions accelerate, if the north-south divide widens (while the north moves progressively south-ward), if Scotland opts for independence to avoid conservative rule, and if the poor and welfare recipients are driven to glum banlieues while the rich colonise the urban centres, where is the basis for "one nation" in all of this? It will exist only at the level of representation.
At the level of political strategy, though, it is an attempt to short-circuit the effects of these polarising processes in the structures of political representation. Were it not for first past the post (FPTP), these processes would have already produced a much deeper fragmentation of political representation, with a proliferation of "small parties" based on class, regional and sectional antagonisms stabilising their electoral presence. But even FPTP can’t stop the rot. The two dominant parties, seeing the growing detachment of voters and members from their traditional parties, are attempting to overcome these effects by, in a managerial, spin-driven manner, making babies. By stitching together contradictory and incoherent policy themes, they hope to build a new social basis for their parties.
Like "triangulation", though, this is good only for short-term manipulation. In the long run, it will only accelerate the crisis of representation.
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