One Nation Labour is a stroke of genius, one short phrase finally burying the shifty uncertainty about how to escape the difficult legacies of both Blair and Brown. Not Old Labour, not New Labour, but One Nation Labour. By setting aside the past, this was the day Miliband took full command of his party, a shadow cabinet behind him no longer scratchy with a few doubters. Honest, at ease in his skin, without pretence, he turned a moving story of his immigrant parents into the reason why he is drawn to give back to British society some of what its welcome gave to all of them.
How clever to reach back into history to damn David Cameron with a killer phrase stolen from his own party’s heritage. For it was doubly stolen, not just from Disraeli but from the valiant but defeated One Nation Tories such as Sir Ian Gilmour and Jim Prior, repelled by Margaret Thatcher’s “no such thing as society”. Their defeat lives on in an entirely Thatcherite Conservative party, fatally purged of its gentler traditions. Watch that party writhe as One Nation Labour encapsulates everything divisive they do, from Cameron’s tax bonus for millionaires to his cruellest cuts for the disabled. Divide and rule is the Cameron hallmark, north against south, the in-work against the workless, private against public employees, young against old, exam-passers versus plebs. How clever to pilfer a Tory phrase with no intention of blurring boundaries or triangulating into Tory turf.
Subtlety is Miliband’s style. So when he said to voters he understood “why you turned away from Labour”, that was enough, everyone knows the reasons why. Of Cameron, he said he understood “why people gave him the benefit of the doubt” – but then he walloped him from here to kingdom come for inflicting all this pain to cut the deficit only to send it soaring higher than ever.
His words on the NHS brought the hall to its feet. A One Nation NHS means repealing the act that forces hospital to compete with hospital, instead of co-operating in common cause. Banks, businesses, schools, jobs – that One Nation phrase will suit everything Labour needs to say. It stands for the squeezed middle as well as the poor.
But he planted the necessary tough message fair and square. There will be “tough settlements for the public sector” that will “make life harder for those who use them and harder for those who work in them”. That seemed not to worry Unite’s Len McCluskey, his erstwhile blustery critic, who sent out paeans of reckless praise: “This is a tour de force … the best speech from a Labour leader I have heard.” The difference, said Miliband, would be that in a government led by him, “the broadest shoulders will always carry the heaviest burden”.
When the well-deserved applause dies down and the warmth of spontaneous affection recedes, does he ask himself about the hollow crown that awaits? That’s the darker question, a destiny to disappoint. Here at every meeting in the conference, reminders rain down of cuts to the bone that his Labour people see all around them. An MP tells of the mother with cerebral palsy twins in her surgery this week losing disability benefits. A citizens advice volunteer tells of all funds for benefits advice gone. Someone tells of a couple losing their home of 30 years, unable to pay the new bedroom tax. Others report Surestarts closed or a GP surgery taken over by Virgin Care. A care worker tells of cuts to support for the frail old, day centres shut and worse to come. A teacher tells of a pupil dropped out for lack of education maintenance allowance, a nurse of cuts in her hospital.
Miliband the victor will wake next morning to all that, alongside turmoil in the NHS, in universal credit and the work programme. The angrier people feel at the next election, the more likely they will vote Labour. But that distress breeds high expectations. How can all this be fixed with fewer funds? In the tough language of priorities, terrible choices await him. Yet despite all that, he looked on Tuesday like a man with the hunger and the wit to win.