Mark Steel: Socialists? You've got to be joking

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Everyone seems to agree that the Labour party is better off having the polite contest taking place now, rather than its old ideological fights. But the result is a series of debates about nothing, with no one daring to say anything, let alone disagree with the nothing someone else has said.

It's so predictable that if an interviewer asked the candidates what they thought about while masturbating, you know that David would say, "I think about the future", his brother would say, "I too think about the future, but also a bit about the past", Diane would say we mustn't forget what we used to think about, Andy Burnham would say reconnecting with the voters, and Ed Balls would utterly refute the rumours that he did it on Tony Blair's desk to annoy him as he was preparing notes for the Cabinet.

The lack of wit, imagination and purpose seemed most obvious when they were all asked if they considered themselves to be a socialist. David Miliband said he was a socialist, "because what we can do together is more than what we can do separately". And that's socialism is it? Even Sarah Palin and General Franco would agree with that. But presumably the founders of socialism worked this out. Maybe Karl Marx suddenly turned to his friend Engels and said, "Friedrich, I've noticed that if I wash and you wipe we get through these dishes quicker than if I do it on my own. Once we've finished the cutlery we must start an international movement".

The younger Miliband added that he was a socialist because "we must be free to criticise the injustices of capitalism". So everyone in the world's a socialist, except people who think that if someone says "Ooh those bankers are greedy so-and-sos", they should be arrested.

Next time he'll say, "I am very much a socialist in as much as I believe it's very important that there are people. I believe strongly that if there were no people, and the world was just rocks and some fish, that could prove highly damaging to our economy and seriously affect our ability to compete in a global market, and in that sense I am, yes, a socialist".

If they said they disagreed with socialism, or felt it was no longer relevant, they would at least be making a statement, but to reduce it to some meaningless phrase that would be rejected in a 12-year-old's homework suggests they're incapable of discussing any ideas at all. Someone should ask them if they're a Hindu, and they'd all say something like, "In as much as I would modernise the Post Office to bring it in line with other industries I am a Hindu, yes".

Ed Balls answered that he was a socialist because "together we are stronger", which could suggest a hint of socialism, depending on who we means by "we". As a slogan for a trade union or campaign against a military dictatorship it would fit, but as his government meant Bush and Blair together with Murdoch and Berlusconi it's probably not what the founders of the Labour Party had in mind.

To mean anything, socialism has to be a desire for the means by which society produces things to be held in common, by the whole of that society, rather than by a clique of people who become very rich. But Labour's potential leaders have no idea what they stand for, to the extent that they daren't say they don't agree with the socialism they've clearly rejected. To pick an example at random, if your party has been in government and boasted that it's reduced regulation on bankers to a historic low so they can pay themselves record bonuses and arse up the country in the process, that errs gently away from the socialist model.

Similarly the statement, "I am intensely relaxed about people who are filthy rich", as said by Peter Mandelson, is not entirely socialist in an orthodox sense, just as an organisation that claimed to be Christian while one of its leaders said, "I am intensely relaxed about the Devil", and then went on holiday with the Devil on his boat, might be in danger of contradicting itself.

Even so, the New Labour era came close to the old constitution's aim of "securing the fruits of society's wealth". It's just that instead of going to the masses, most of it's been secured by their ex-leader and his wife.

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