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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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