David Hall in Brighton: Labour pains

by The Listener / 03 October, 2013
The Opposition in Britain seeks a new identity.
As an unusually glorious British summer turns on its last spurt, I’m in a darkened conference hall in Brighton to watch the annual Labour Party conference. Outside, locals carry trays of freshly poured pints to beachside tables. Inside, power-dressed delegates sweat it out, scurrying between talks, shaking hands, hatching plans.

“It’s the best thing since bread torn into little pieces.”


One question haunts me: Why pink? The main stage features stylised Union Jacks, their royal blues and imperial reds faded to azure and French pink. Are these the new colours of the centre left? Is a watered-down socialism intersecting with a diluted conservatism? Is Labour leader Ed Miliband trying to shake off his nickname, “Red Ed”? Or is this the final trampling of New Labour’s red rose, the emblem of the Blair years?

Such questions may seem trivial, but you can be sure many hours were spent in Whitehall, agonising over colour charts.

The reasons for blue are not so obscure. It’s a nod to the “Blue Labour” movement, an ideology of nostalgia that emerged in recent years, calling for the left to rediscover “family, faith, and flag”.

These ideas filtered into “One Nation Labour”, the rebranding that Miliband unveiled last year. Like the colour blue, the concept of One Nation is traditionally linked to the Conservative Party, originally through Benjamin Disraeli, who responded to Victorian-era inequality by advocating a paternalistic society where the rich helped the poor.

Now Miliband has adapted One Nation for his own purposes. He wants to align Labour with true blue, small-c conservatism, the conservation of traditional British ways of life, particularly the values of working people. The idea is to make the Conservative Party look recklessly progressive in its fondness for radical austerity and unchecked market forces. But the move is also symptomatic of the isolationist turn in modern politics, the public exhaustion with the instabilities of globalisation.

The strategy seems to be working. Labour came into conference season on 36% compared with the Tories’ 29%, a lead they’ve held for some 18 months (the right-wing populist UKIP is third at
17%; the Lib Dems trail at 7%). In his leader’s speech, Miliband promised to “stand up to the strong” and ensured a media frenzy for his masterstroke: a 20-month freeze on gas and electricity price rises. Lamenting rising costs of living, he angrily repeated the mantra, “Britain can do better than this!”

But beneath all that talk of unity, many fret over Miliband’s weak personal approval ratings. Blue Labour supporters prescribe a burlier nationalism; Blairites and Brownites carp unhelpfully from the sidelines, sorry to see their technocratic vision discarded.

On my first night here, in a moment worthy of The Thick of It, I overheard one crisp-suited Labourite say to his colleague, “I think it’s more important to make people realise they’re f---ing retards.” The essential tension in progressive politics has rarely been so clearly put.

It was a reminder that One Nation is an agenda, not a fact. Most of the political class belong to a “nation” that working people simply don’t.

As Oxford starts a new academic year, its streets teeming with black-gowned undergrads, I can’t help but recall that Miliband was once among them. So were his Shadow Chancellor and Shadow Home Secretary.

On the other side, all the Great Office roles – Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, and Home Secretary – are Oxford graduates. Nine of the 13 British premiers since the World War II attended Oxford. How can Miliband appeal to working people when he walks and talks like someone else? Dissociation can help. Margaret Thatcher, a magnet for blue-collar conservative voters, once quipped, “I went to Oxford University but I’ve never let it hold me back.”

But, then, she also looked splendid in pink.

David Hall is a New Zealand doctoral researcher in political theory at the University of Oxford.
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