The Labour Conference in Manchester this week was all about its leader. A ComRes poll published on Monday showed that only 22% believe that he has what it takes to be a good Prime Minister and even amongst Labour supporters 42% don’t think he has.
His supporters say he is not known rather than disliked so the conference was his opportunity to show why he should be the next occupant of No 10.
His speech on Tuesday was brave. He spoke without a text for more than an hour and told us what makes him tick but in doing so he took a huge risk. First, he imitated David Cameron’s style in speaking unscripted but did it well. More important, his core theme was ‘the One Nation’ vision, a traditional Conservative theme originated by Benjamin Disraeli, as he admitted. Cameron has used the same theme in his speeches. Predictably, Miliband argues that the P.M. and his party no longer have any claim on it because tax cuts for the wealthy and the tax credit and public service cuts hitting the poorest are dividing the nation, not uniting us.
No doubt we shall hear a different message at next week’s Conservative conference but there is more involved in this than party political bickering. The Olympic and Para-Olympic games exposed an appetite for One Nation thinking that went beyond the spectators applauding British competitors. Was this a shallow and temporary escape from the gloom and hardships of the current austerity or something deeper? The Dunkirk spirit of 1940 is often recalled but never recovered for long and how real was that spirit when some were making a quick buck on the black market whilst others died on the beaches and in the blitz?
The problem for Ed Miliband is that some of his party, especially its trade union leaders, employed the language of class warfare in their speeches that does not fit with a One Nation vision. The bankers do have to put their house in order and put retail service before speculative activity and excessive bonuses in a One Nation Britain but the public service trade unions have to play their part too. Striking to preserve better pay and pension provisions than their private sector equivalents is not a One Nation option.
Similar reservations apply to the Conservatives. The Coalition inherited an economic mess and unrealistically promised to clean it up in five years. The measures adopted have meant that a growing number of households cannot cope without help from food banks. Those food banks are a symbol of One Nation thinking by the volunteers who stock and run them but the policies that produced the need for them is not.
The One Nation vision will appeal to anyone seeking to follow Jesus’ teaching to prioritise neighbour love before self-interest but the nation no longer follows Christ and has abandoned Christian moral values. Around which values might a One Nation Britain be built?