In a speech on Monday, at the start of the first ever Living Wage Week, Ed Miliband unveiled his pledge to back a living wage of at least £7.45 per hour for millions of people. Under the proposals, Whitehall contracts would only go to firms paying the living wage, while those who paid less could be "named and shamed". He said that introducing the living wage would be an important part of rebuilding the country as One Nation, where the Government works with the best of British business to ensure that prosperity is shared more fairly.
These ideas build on the speech that Ed Miliband gave to the Labour party conference last month. His speech in Manchester will be remembered partly for its delivery. It was delivered without notes for over an hour and even many of Labour’s critics acknowledge in private that it was his best yet. In the short term, it forced David Cameron to rip up drafts of his own speech and deliver an entirely reactive response to Ed Miliband at the Conservative party conference. But in the long term, it is Miliband's vision of ‘One Nation’ that will have the most significant and enduring impact.
One Nation is about coming together as a country to form a society and an economy where everyone has a stake and everyone has a responsibility. A country where prosperity is fairly shared and where the institutions that bind us together are preserved and enhanced.
The One Nation vision comes from a changed Labour party that can represent the interests of the whole country: private and public sector; north and south; the squeezed middle and those in poverty; the small businessman as well as the public service worker. This approach will set us on a path to creating an economy that works for all working people, creates opportunity and rewards aspiration, and delivers the real change that people want to see.
One Nation is also about making sure that no one is forgotten and or left on the sidelines. On further education, for example, it is about focusing not only on the 50 per cent that go to university, but on the 50 per cent that don’t. This is why Ed Miliband has called for the introduction of a gold standard vocational qualifications and apprenticeships.
Labour understands that when a young person can’t get a job and is left languishing in long-term unemployment, this is not just a disaster for that person and their family, but for the whole country as well. Long-term unemployment can have an impact on that individual’s health, their self-esteem, as well as their prospects of getting a job in the future. But it is also a great waste of talent that could be being used to contribute something to our community and it affects the wider economy through the sheer cost of keeping people on benefits and not paying tax.
David Cameron's response at his conference was to talk of aspiration. But the truth is his record and his policies just don't stand up to scrutiny. How can young people reach their potential when the reality is the education budget has seen the biggest cut since the 1950s, tuition fees have trebled and support for young people to stay on at college has gone with the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance?
Since the election, it has become clear that David Cameron is not a One Nation leader that can unite us as a country. His decision to defend a tax cut for the wealthiest, for example, at a time when millions of families with children are losing an average of £511 this year due to tax and benefit changes, will only serve to divide the country further. How can it be right for millionaires to receive a tax cut at the same time as the most vulnerable people in our country have their safety nets ripped out from underneath them?
After trying desperately to ‘re-brand’ the party in the years in opposition, David Cameron and the Conservatives have been exposed for what they really are in government. As well as hard-wiring unfairness in our society and our economy, they continue to undermine our cherished institutions, making us weaker as a nation. During the last general election, Cameron notoriously launched a poster campaign promising that he would “cut the deficit, not the NHS”. The truth is he has done just the opposite. The deficit is rising because of his economic failure and the NHS budget has been cut two years running at the same time as implementing an unnecessary £3 billion top-down reorganisation.
We now have 5,500 fewer nurses, waiting times going up and public satisfaction with the NHS – that was at an all time high under Labour – is now falling. Institutions like the NHS are part of our national identity and bind us together. Millions of people felt a collective feeling of pride as the opening ceremony at the Olympics paid tribute to the NHS - I know I did. Protecting the NHS is central to Ed Miliband's vision of One Nation.
Cameron has also failed to stand up to vested interests. On the scandal that surrounded News International and the Murdoch Empire, he only acted to set up the judge-led inquiry after he was forced to do so by Ed Miliband. On the banks, he has done nothing on bonuses, the LIBOR rigging rate scandal nor on the failure of the banks to lend to struggling SMEs. And on the energy companies too, Cameron has failed to break the dominance of the big six. Soaring energy bills are hurting families and pensioners yet the Government is not acting when it should be overhauling the energy market in order to deliver fair prices for all.
Ed Miliband’s speech on the living wage last Monday, like his previous important intervention on mental health the week before, is part of an ongoing effort to expand on his ideas of One Nation in the coming months. His One Nation speech to the Labour party conference in September was only the start of a big debate about how we make the really big changes we need as a country.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East, shadow minister without portfolio a vice-chair of the Labour party