“When are you bringing back socialism?” “That’s what we are doing, Sir.”
It was a throwaway comment in a question and answer session on a Brighton street that has come to dominate the press narrative about Labour’s leader since last week’s conference that has grown increasingly hysterical as the days have gone on.
Of course, Ed Miliband is not “bringing back socialism”. I’m not sure of the time when we had socialism from which he is now supposed to resurrect it, but Labour’s policy announcements to date are at best very mild social democracy. The party first officially called itself “democratic socialist” under Tony Blair and senior figures often refer to themselves as socialist (last week, Ed Balls opted for socialism over capitalism in a Daily Politics poll) without it actually meaning anything tangible.
The truth about Ed Milband’s energy price freeze and commitment to policies like full employment is not that they are socialist but that they challenge, if only at the edges, the post-Thatcher economic consensus which says that the state is powerless to act on living standards, jobs and growth. This received wisdom can be seen in Osborne’s new “help to work” programme which instead of the state creating jobs and getting people off benefits, keeps people on the dole and forces them to do work for free.
What frightens the press, and the vested interests they speak for, is that Miliband might win. So that’s why we’ve seen the Mail plastering their frontpages with claims that Ed is taking us back to the 70s, the Telegraph comparing Labour’s housing policy to Stalinism and the ‘Red Ed’ label re-emerge.
Unsurprisingly, the Mail has dabbled in its tried and tested tactics, going to great lengths to point out Ed is the son of immigrant Jews, and worse still had a Marxist Dad. I can’t speak for Ralph Miliband but I suspect he would not regard a cap on gas bills while ensuring the energy sector functions as a “dynamic market” to be an “ultimate tribute”. According to the paper, Ed chose to honor his father by running for the leadership of a party Ralph devoted an entire book to calling useless.
In that book, Miliband Snr said Labour’s problem was that it was more wedded to the parliamentary system then it was to socialism and in the response to his son’s recent announcements we can see the tensions between the two. When ever Labour, or other parties across the world, have tampered with the status quo, and challenged the vested interests who benefit from it, those interests have never hesitated in taking extra-parliamentary action; destablising the economy, engineering commodity shortages and using the press to influence public opinion against elected politicians.
True to form vested interest has unleashed exactly these threats. An investment strike, blackouts, price hikes and a barrage of press smears. They will of course throw millions at the Tory election machine in the coming 19 months, but should this fail you shouldn’t expect them to respect the wishes of a democratically elected government.
Far from the ‘parliamentary socialism’ his Dad lamented as a failure, Ed’s programme, at its most ambitious, is a ‘parliamentary social democracy’, and, for some, even that is too much to stomach. The hyperbolic reaction shows just how embedded post-Thatcher economics are and how powerful vested interests have become. Ed isn’t on the road to socialism, but he’s in for a bumpy ride nonetheless.
Talk of ‘tough decisions’ and ‘iron discipline’ on spending demonstrate the dominance of Tory thinking over economic policy in Westminster, even as its effects cost them support in the polls. Labour needs to start thinking and acting for itself and for the people it represents.
The Tories are tanking as the impact of austerity, trashing the economy and tearing up lives, hits home with voters. As I have previously written, the austerity agenda which has dominated the UK’s economic debate since 2010 is increasingly seen as inseparable from a stagnant economy and growing poverty and unemployment. But the response from Labour has been to triangulate and trim to this unpopular message which will not help build our support.
The Tories now propose to extend spending cuts into the next parliament and despite austerity failing, the right wing argue that Labour should accept Tory spending limits. Some senior party members are accepting a framework of economic stagnation and even Ed Miliband talks of delivering ‘with less money around’, rather than seeking to inspire voters with an alternative vision of growth.
There have been attempts to gloss over concrete commitments to maintain cuts with suggestions these could fund new projects. Labour will not convince people if its message is so clearly confused and the talk of welfare cuts and caps suggests to voters a policy framework similar to the Tories.
At the same time, our affiliated unions are campaigning against the cuts on a daily basis and urging stronger opposition to the Tories in Parliament. Many Labour MPs and members are actively opposing cuts – to local hospitals, fire stations and other vital public services – plus 36 Labour council leaders are calling on the government to scrap the bedroom tax, which has itself generated a large number of local protests.
The growing movement opposing the government’s attacks needs a forum to discuss the way forward – which the People’s Assembly Against Austerity on the 22nd June will provide. Many Labour Party activists will be in Central Hall Westminster to join in discussing the economic alternative to austerity.
This campaign against austerity needs to step up a gear within the Labour Party. Labour’s right-wing is pressing for the leadership to adopt the Tories’ austerity policies. This can only lead to the economic and political failure of a Labour government, which is why a radical alternative is needed.
Only a progressive economic policy can succeed for Labour. It is also the best way to reach out to secure a broad coalition of support. Voters living standards have dramatically declined under this coalition government. Sticking with Tory spending limits in the next Parliament would ensure their further decline and cut Labour support.
That is why Next Generation Labour is calling for a Labour Assembly Against Austerity in October 2013.
We will discuss rejecting cuts and look at the alternative policies that Labour should advance in its manifesto. The priority must be to stimulate growth, jobs and better living standards. Labour Party members are an important part of a growing broad based national movement against austerity so we should play our part in supporting the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.
The Assembly is open to all party members opposed to austerity – please sign up to the statement and get involved.