Miliband reburies socialism at Google

Praising Tony Blair and criticising Ralph Miliband, the Labour leader said the choice was not between socialism and capitalism but "responsible" and "irresponsible" capitalism.

While it's Ed Miliband's comments on Google and tax avoidance that will inevitably attract the most media attention, by far the more interesting section of his speech at the company's "Big Tent" event at The Grove hotel in Hertfordshire was on capitalism and socialism. 

The Labour leader opened his address by showing four pictures, of Ralph Miliband, Willy Wonka, Margaret Hodge and Google, and, in the manner of Have I Got News For You, asking the audience to guess the odd one out. The answer, he continued, was his dad "because he’s the only one who thought that the route to a fair society was not through capitalism but through socialism based on public ownership."

In a reference to Labour's old clause IV, which called for "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange", Miliband added that "It wasn’t just my dad who thought it, of course. Until 1995 this view was enshrined on the membership card of the party I now lead." He then praised Tony Blair, the man who recently warned him in the NS not "to tack left on tax and spending", for scrapping it "because nationalising the major industries is not the route to a fair society." Though it may be surprising that a Labour leader still feels the need to say so, capitalism is the only game in town. 

But Miliband was clear that this doesn't preclude debate about what kind of capitalism Britain should adopt. After all, the Americans, the Chinese and the Swedish all do capitalism but they do so in very different ways. For Miliband, returning to the theme of his 2011 Labour conference speech, the choice is not between capitalism and socialism but between "responsible capitalism" and "irresponsible capitalism". Citing The Simpsons' Mr Burns as an example of a neglectful capitalist ("Of course, he is a cartoon character," he helpfully noted), he argued: 

[T]there is a choice to make.

A choice between an “irresponsible capitalism” which sees huge gaps between the richest and the poorest, power concentrated in a few hands, and people are just in it for the fast buck whatever the consequences.

And a “responsible capitalism”, and this is an agenda being led by business, where companies pursues profit but we also have an equal society, power is in the hands of the many and where we recognise our responsibilities to each other.

And my case is a “responsible capitalism” isn’t only fairer but we’re more likely to succeed as a country with it. 

By adopting this stance, Miliband is taking on both the socialist left, for whom "responsible capitalism" is an oxymoron, and the neoliberal right, for whom a deregulated market economy is the only guarantee of prosperity. 

In the Q&A that followed, no one asked the Labour leader whether he would still describe himself as a "socialist" (as he did in November 2010), but on whether socialism has any relevance today, it's worth highlighting the smart answer he gave to the Telegraph's Charles Moore last year. After he was asked  whether "the great lesson from his parents is ‘that socialism was a god that failed?'", Miliband replied that it was not a rigid economic doctrine, but "a set of values", and "a tale that never ends" since "While there’s capitalism, there’ll be socialism, because there is always a response to injustice."

Ed Miliband at Google's "Big Tent" event at The Grove hotel in Hertfordshire.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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I’m in the kitchen with my children, finally learning how to sharpen a knife

For some reason, they have often given me sharp things as presents.

The children have been with me quite a bit lately: they are all going to be, by the time you read this, on their travels, and the Hovel is a useful staging-post for the start of their journeys. Staying here means an extra hour in bed when you have to take a coach from Victoria, or a plane from Stansted or, worse, Luton.

Their company never fails to delight, which is not how I imagined things would turn out. I was a surly clock-watcher at my own parents’ home, counting the days until I could cast off the oppressive yoke of having my meals cooked for me and my laundry done. That was how it was back then. Nowadays, parents try to close the gap between themselves and their children or, even if they don’t try, the gap seems to be closing anyway.

I suppose not being in situ for ten years, on the ground doing the daily heavy lifting, helps. I am not the monstrous, Freudian oppressor-figure: I am the messy layabout with a certain weird kind of authority but not one who assumes the moral high ground. But here they are, or were, and as they get older they get increasingly interesting, more pleasing to be with. And the interesting thing is that they now have skills that I can learn. The traffic of instruction is not one-way.

My daughter worked, for a while, in the kitchen of a restaurant in Berlin. She already knew how to cook, and how to get along with people, but there she also learned how to sharpen knives. I thought I could, but I can’t, not at all.

When you see a father – invariably a father – zinging a honing steel along the blade of a knife prior to carving the Sunday roast, he is not doing anything useful apart from establishing a sense of theatre, which is of debatable utility anyway. He might think he’s a cross between Zorro and Anthony Bourdain, the rather cool New York chef – there’s always a certain flourish in the wrist action – but the trained chef will raise an eyebrow.

For some reason my children have often given me sharp things as presents. For my first Christmas in the Hovel they gave me a Swiss Army Knife, which I still use, especially the corkscrew; one birthday they gave me a pizza-cutter in the shape of the original Starship Enterprise – which I still use. And last birthday, the boys clubbed together to get me a proper kitchen knife.

I had hitherto resisted the notion of getting one, despite the fact that I like cooking and also know how important a good knife is. Here is Bourdain himself, writing in his Les Halles Cookbook (the only one I ever use these days): “Your knife, more than any other piece of equipment in the kitchen, is an extension of the self, an expression of your skills, ability, experience, dreams and desires.”

I suppose this was why I put up with rubbish knives for so long: my dreams and desires were second-rate. I was cooking on an electric hob, mostly for myself; besides, I wasn’t going to be here forever. What the hell was I going to do with a decent knife? Also, I have a healthy respect for sharpness, and whenever I cut meat up with a good blade, I imagine that blade cutting into my own weak flesh, and see vividly, the wound it makes.

But a good knife needs to be looked after, and my daughter, who was given a Japanese chef’s knife as a parting gift from her fellow kitchen workers, learned how to use a water stone, and last weekend taught me.

It is fascinating, and soothing, sharpening a knife. You have to gauge the correct angle at which to place the blade against the stone. You have to feel, with the pads of your fingers, the sharpness of the knife itself, and the burr that results on one side of it after a few dozen passes over the stone. One is aware that sharpening is about shaving steel, almost by molecules at a time, a process that has no theoretical end, except when, one day, the knife itself is sharpened to invisibility.

I am reminded of the fabled measure of eternity: the bird who sharpens his beak against the rock of a mile-high mountain once every hundred years. When the mountain is worn down, a mere day of eternity will have passed.

Meanwhile, the daughter passes the knife across the stone, dips her fingers in a bowl of water, sprinkles it over the stone, and repeats the passing. The father sits there, absorbed in her skill, wondering at this inversion of the traditional learning process. “Here,” she says, handing over knife and stone. “You have a go.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder