The rule of capital is “unimpaired and virtually unchallenged; no social democratic party is nowadays concerned to mount a serious challenge to that rule.” If he was still with us, the socialist Ralph Miliband would have noted two big changes since he wrote these words not long before his death in 1994. Firstly, he’d observe – with little surprise – that capitalism has plunged itself into yet another almighty mess. Secondly, he would undoubtedly be consumed with pride that his youngest son had assumed the leadership of one of these social democratic parties. Momentous events indeed: but his wistful conclusion would have remained the same.
That in mind, I wonder what Ralph Miliband would have made of his son’s transformation from a “laughable blank sheet of paper” to “frothing-at-the-mouth Communist who is going to nationalise your mother quicker than you can say ‘Friedrich Engels had a cracking beard'”. Ed Miliband’s suggested crackdown on land-banking (once endorsed by Boris “Commie” Johnson) and a temporary freeze on energy prices (backed by arch-Leninist Tom Burke, the former Tory special adviser on energy) have provoked comparisons with undesirable elements ranging from Robert Mugabe to the Bolsheviks. After he stood on a soapbox in Brighton and indulged a bystander asking when he would “bring back socialism”, the British right have behaved as though Labour are planning to finish what Lenin was doing before he was so rudely interrupted.
In part, it is the sinister red-baiting of Ed Miliband through his dead father, culminating with the Daily Mail accusing the Labour leader of planning to drive “a hammer and sickle through the heart of the nation so many of us love”. Pass the spliff, Mr Dacre. “Like a good Marxist,” writes The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Moore, “he detects the cowardice latent in capitalists,” accusing Miliband of being “part of an ideology” which is “ultimately pauperising and totalitarian.” Jeremy Hunt odiously endorsed the Mail’s lunacy, arguing that “Ralph Miliband was no friend of the free market and I have never heard Ed Miliband say he supports it.” George Osborne, meanwhile, accuses Ed Miliband of making “essentially the same argument Karl Marx made in Das Kapital.”
This is what is really going on. The right are so drunk on three decades of free-market triumphalism, so used to the left being smashed and battered, that they believe even the mildest deviation from the neo-liberal script is unacceptable. They thought all of these battles had been won, that they were rid of all their turbulent priests, and now they are incandescent at the alleged resurgence of defeated enemies. Don’t you know you’re supposed to be dead? It’s not even the most moderate form of social democracy that the right are trying to drive from political life. Anyone who does not advocate yet more aggressive doses of neo-liberalism – more privatisation, more cuts to the taxes of the wealthy, more attacks on workers’ rights – is liable to come under suspicion, too.
The British right’s strategy is pretty clear. They want to do to “socialist” what the US right have done to “liberal”: turn it into an unequivocally toxic word that no-one in public life would want to associate with, and use it as a means to smear political opponents deemed to deviate from Britain’s suffocating neo-liberal consensus. Bemusing, to say the least, given Labour first officially declared itself a “democratic socialist party” under Tony Blair in 1995 as a sop to the left in the party’s new revised Clause IV. He even wrote a Fabian Society pamphlet entitled Socialism. Yes, granted it meant nothing more to him than motherhood and apple pie, and he had more leeway than Miliband because it was rather more difficult to pin him down as a heartfelt lefty, but the point is even New Labour could happily bandy “socialism” about.
But let’s get a bit of perspective here. Socialism? I don’t think so. Labour have – wrongly – committed themselves to Osborne’s spending plans in the first year of a new government. As Michael Gove gobbles up the comprehensive education system for dinner, Labour’s response has been, to say the least, muted. Medialand may be wailing about 1970s socialism being back with a vengeance, but given polls show 69 per cent want the energy companies nationalised, the Labour leader still found himself to the right of public opinion. No commitment on rail renationalisation, either, which some polls show is even the preferred option of Tory voters. There’s suggestions Labour would hike the top rate of tax up to 50 per cent again, but polls show the public would be happy to take it to 60 per cent. Not exactly the full-scale expropriation of the bourgeoisie, is it?
In truth, Ed Miliband strikes me as an old-style social democrat, perhaps what would have been described as the “Old Labour Right” before Blair’s Year Zero. He generally seems well-intentioned about dragging the political centre of gravity away from the Thatcherite right, but appears to fear a lack of political space to do so. He has made moves towards a mild social democracy in limited areas – but it is just that, mild, although even that is too strong for those now imitating the hysterical rhetoric of Barack Obama’s Tea Party opponents.
It is difficult, sometimes, not to be overwhelmed by the hypocrisy of the right. They don’t mind a bit of statism, as long as, generally speaking, it’s propping up the wealthy. Banks bailed out by the taxpayer, not free-market dogma; infrastructure, education, and research and development that all businesses depend on, paid for by the state; private contractors who owe their profits solely to state largesse; even mortgages now underwritten by the state. It is only when it is suggested that the state might help those near the bottom of the pile that the right cries foul. In their world, “moderation” means the biggest cuts since the 1920s, the driving of over a million children into poverty, privatising the NHS without public consent and dropping bombs on foreign countries. “Extremism” is curbing energy prices, asking the booming wealthy to pay a bit more tax, and stopping construction firms squatting on land during a housing crisis. So let’s start telling it as it is: they are the extremists, however much they squeal disingenuously about the “centre ground”.
Real democratic socialism would not mean the odd curb on energy prices. It would mean a living wage instead of subsidises for poverty pay, and allowing councils to build housing rather than taxpayers lining the pockets of private landlords. It would mean arguing for social ownership – from banks to the railways – giving real democratic control to workers and consumers.
That is not currently on offer from Labour. But the right fear that, if even mild social-democratic populism proves popular, the door might open to more radical ideas. Their whole Thatcherite consensus could prove imperilled. And that is why the British right are starting to sound like bad-tempered Joseph McCarthy clones who stigmatise even timid social democracy as dangerous extremism to block any further shift away from free market extremism. But a word of warning to the right. Look across the Atlantic. How has the Tea Party-isation of the US right worked out for them? Because that is exactly where you are heading.