The problem with Ralph Miliband, according to son Ed, is that he didn’t properly appreciate Margaret Thatcher: “My dad was sceptical of all the Thatcher aspirational stuff,” Indeed, and so are all those of us who were unconvinced by it at the time, and were never converted to the Neo-liberal project subsequently.
Ralph Miliband was of course a Marxist academic and a prominent and distinguished member of the British New Left. Like many on the left he was sceptical of the British Labour Party’s ability or willingness to achieve fundamental change to capitalist society. The Labour Party, he believed, was trapped both tactically, by its reliance on parliamentary reformism, and ideologically, by the dominance of labourist and revisionist perspectives on capitalism versus socialism. His book ‘Parliamentary Socialism’, published in 1961, records the Labour Party’s political development from its creation at the beginning of the 20th century to the internal policy battles over nationalisation and nuclear strategy following its defeat in the 1959 General Election.
When ‘Parliamentary Socialism’ was reprinted in 1972, Miliband added a postscript which reassessed the Party under the leadership of Harold Wilson. For those who insist that the move to ‘New Labour’ orchestrated by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown represents a fundamental break with what the Party believed or how it behaved previously, this makes interesting reading.
…Harold Wilson said much, in the eighteen months after he became leader of the Labour Party, which appeared to provide an answer to Labour’s search for the kind of positive ‘message’ which it had failed to find ever since the collapse of the Attlee Government in 1959.
His most insistent and persuasive theme was the need for change, renewal, modernization and reform in every area of British life, most of all in economic life. Much of what he said sounded radical enough…. It needs to be understood, however, that what Wilson was attacking was not British capitalism as a system, but some facets of it, the ‘old boy network’, ‘candy-floss commercialism’, ‘parasitic speculators’, the ‘grouse-moor mentality’, and that what, in effect, he counterposed to this was not the vision of a socialist society, but of a renovated capitalism, freed from its aristocratic and gentlemanly accretions, dynamic, professional, entrepreneurial, numerate and efficient.
…Wilson’s apparent conviction that it was possible to make a clear separation between ‘patriotic’ and ‘unpatriotic’ enterprise altogether ignored the degree to which those forms of it to which he objected and those forms of it which he approved were in fact intertwined. Secondly, that even if some such separation was possible, the kind of capitalism which appeared to meet with his approval was as socially irresponsible and greedily exploitative as any other kind.
Ralph Miliband, though, does not accuse Wilson of simply engaging in a public relations exercise. Wilson’s urge to reform was genuine but:
… his reforming zeal was deliberately set, for all its verbal edge, within the context of an economic system whose basic features were accepted by him and his colleagues as given; and that all their proposals for change had therefore to be adapted to the nature and requirements of that system. But ‘adapted ‘ is too weak – ‘subordinated’ would be more accurate…. the ‘modernization’ for which he asked could only mean the more efficient operation of the capitalist system; and this would include that ever-greater concentration of private economic power, which he denounced, but which the Labour Government was in fact to encourage.
So when Ed Miliband announces that he has no problem with some people becoming very rich, as long as they made their money “the hard way”; or that his and his party’s mission is to “save capitalism from itself”, he is firmly in the tradition of previous Labour leaders. I am sure that Ed, like Wilson, genuinely wants to fashion a more ‘humane’ capitalism. But also, like Wilson, he believes he is constrained by what the nature and requirements of the system will allow. And here lies the rub. Wilson, in the sixties, was operating within the social democratic consensus that emerged in the non-communist European states and the USA after the Second World War. This was the unwritten concordat between labour and capital that sanctioned the role of governments in macroeconomic policy, allowed trade unions some limited access to political and economic decision making, and accepted (however grudgingly) greater redistribution of wealth both directly in better wages and pensions, and indirectly in greater public spending on health, welfare and education for working people. Now some might say that, compared to Wilson, Ed Miliband is a political minnow. But the essential fact here is that he is swimming in a very different pond.
The post-war decades saw increasing strains within the social democratic consensus as economic growth stagnated and capital accumulation was felt (at least by those doing the accumulating) to be blocked by state regulation and the power of organised labour. The crises of the seventies were resolved by the overturning of that consensus in the interests of capital. In the US, the UK and elsewhere the right took political power with a very different agenda, using the shock doctrine of exploiting economic and political crisis to implement radical change. This assault involved the systematic dis-empowerment of organised labour and democratic institutions, the deregulation and removal of barriers (national and global) for business, and the large-scale privatisation of state assets and services. It established Neo-liberalism as the new hegemony and consigned social democracy to the same realm of unreality to which ‘socialism’ had already been dispatched.
The Labour Party, because of its revisionist ideology and parliamentarialism, was completely powerless to resist this onslaught. In the face of the destruction of social democracy as a viable political position the Party had a clear choice: either oppose the new order by adopting a more radical, anti-capitalist position, or accept that ‘There Is No Alternative’ and work within the constraints imposed by Neo-liberalism. Labour of course chose the second, some grudgingly and some enthusiastically. Hence the nature of Blair/Brown’s ‘modernisation’, the ostentatious removal of the Party’s Clause IV, the alliance building with the City of London and the Murdoch press. The Party leaders are very aware that they are swimming in different waters now and have aligned themselves with the sharks in fear of being eaten.
When Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership over his brother David, Private Eye magazine produced a front page with an image of TweedleDum and TweedleDee and the caption “Dum wins, Dee furious”. Many party members felt this was an unfair slur on Ed - the same people, probably, who believed there would be some significant difference when Gordon Brown replaced Blair as Prime Minister. The fact is that there is almost no difference politically between Blair, Brown and the two Milibands. They have all signed up to the Neo-liberal ‘reality’ and cannot envisage doing anything to challenge its precepts. For this reason Labour would not repeal the Tories’ anti-trade union laws and will not even support union actions to defend pay and conditions (apart from pointless and powerless A-B marches, preferably on days when there is minimal disruption for business), and Labour will continue to champion markets and ‘entrepreneurs’ over collective and social provision. This is despite the fact that, like Wilson, Labour leaders know very well the effect is to increase inequality, boost the transfer of wealth from poor to rich, and produce a further decline in social solidarity. All things they denounce but will, given power, encourage.
I suspect the main difference between Ed Miliband and his brother David is that Ed has a residual nostalgia for social democracy, whereas David is unencumbered by that baggage.
Postscript: Interestingly, Ed Miliband’s views on capitalism, as expressed in The Telegraph interview with Charles Moore, are a little more nuanced and thoughtful than you would guess from The Guardian’s report quoted above (see Sunny Hundal’s post on Liberal Conspiracy) – and this might possibly be connected to The Guardian’s apparent lack of support for Ed and Labour in comparison to its continued defence of Nick Clegg. However Ed’s views still clearly fall in to the pattern outlined by his father – radical(ish) rhetoric obscuring an inability to challenge the causes of the problems being denounced.