Cast your mind back to the 2012 Labour Party conference in Manchester and the launch of Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation Labour’ slogan. Miliband borrowed the famous maxim of Benjamin Disraeli in order to substantiate his pitch to the nation. The result was a favourable media response and a purple patch for Miliband, who went on to hammer David Cameron at PMQs for the next few weeks. As we all know, Miliband’s One Nation philosophy never fulfilled its early rhetorical potential. Yet, in an ironic twist, a nemesis of the former Labour leader is now attempting to adopt shades of Miliband's One Nation legacy.
Unveiling his summer budget yesterday in the House of Commons, Chancellor George Osborne did just that. He pledged to abolish non-dom status, a key Miliband pre-election pledge, and praised deposed Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls for the concerns he had raised before the election. Osborne also repeatedly used the phrase ‘One Nation,’ seemingly in a bid to reclaim the phrase for the Conservatives, having seen it temporarily dyed red.
While the abolishment of non-dom status is part of a clear agenda against tax evasion, and the promise to create two million more jobs is vital to the Tories’ ‘getting Britain back to work’ rhetoric, this Budget was about Osborne's leadership credentials. Sadly for his rivals, the Chancellor shone like a Boris bike glinting in the Westminster sun.
“Britain is finally doing the responsible thing and raising more money than it spends,” asserted the Chancellor. David Cameron was the picture of a pensive junior minister. The questionable nature of Osborne’s claim, and frankly dangerous comparison to Greece, given that Britain’s deficit is rising at a higher rate than that of our bankrupt European counterpart, merely summed up the brazen confidence with which Osborne strolled through his Budget.
Another contentious claim - that child poverty has fallen under the Tories - wasn’t even challenged by Labour, who remained uncharacteristically sedate throughout. In fact, the only point at which the party opposite got excited was when Osborne made a fair and seemingly innocuous point about Britain’s road infrastructure lagging behind that of Puerto Rica.
Attempting to shake-off the ‘nasty party’ image (and his association with this brand) was the ultimate purpose of Osborne’s Budget. Having gone in hard on tax avoidance, Osborne proceeded to take the banks to task, highlighting the use of money raised from “those with the worst of values to support those with the best of British values” (fines paid by bankers used to support public services and armed forces). An 8% surcharge and a pledge to reduce the bank levy rate epitomised the Chancellor’s new-found tough stance on the banks. Once again, Labour remained silent. Yet, the biggest rabbit was to come.
Glancing down at Ed Miliband’s policy notebook once again, the Chancellor announced a Living Wage starting at £7.20 an hour and rising to £9 an hour by 2020. The Conservatives, having destroyed Miliband as a leader, are parading their ability to appropriate his ideas.
The move to increase wages was hailed by Living Wage UK, but also criticised on the grounds that there appeared to be no direct link with the market – meaning that it is more akin to an increase in the National Minimum wage, rather than an actual Living Wage. Labour, realising that Osborne’s promise (despite its shortfalls) was an improvement on their pre-election pledge to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour, desperately tried to spin. Living Wage UK had ‘shot down’ the Chancellor’s plans, they cried. Yet Labour’s pleas rang hollow throughout the Commons chamber. Osborne had outflanked the opposition, and many of his colleagues were visibly delighted with the outcome…
This was a Budget that was perfectly measured for the occasion and deliciously executed. Labour’s incoherent response said much about the party’s present struggles. As the party fumbles around for a post-Miliband formula, Osborne has seized Ed’s clothes, and given himself an increasing aura of untouchability.