If Ed Miliband is a socialist, so are most of the public

The Labour leader's supposedly "left-wing" policies are supported by the overwhelming majority of voters.

You don't have to clear a very high bar to be called a 'socialist' today. Judging by the response of the conservative press to Ed Miliband's conference speech, one would have thought that the Labour leader had proposed to nationalise the FTSE 100 (as socialists frequently used to do).

Matthew d'Ancona wrote in yesterday's Evening Standard that Miliband had "vacated" the centre ground, while almost every other right-leaning commentator responded by resurrecting the 2010 epithet "Red Ed". This neuralgic reaction undoubtedly owes something to Miliband's answer last week to the question "when will you bring back socialism?": "That's what we are doing, sir." But as I noted at the time, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also frequently described themselves as "socialist". For any leader of Labour, a "democratic socialist party" according to its members' cards, it is an obligatory affectation. 

The apparently sincere depiction of Miliband as "a socialist" by commentators such as Fraser Nelson and Dan Hodges reveals more about the rightwards journey of British politics over the last three decades than it does about Miliband's radicalism. The suggestion that he has abandoned the centre also represents a profound misreading of public opinion. If Miliband is a socialist, then so are most of the electorate. 

Focus group approval for his pledge to freeze energy prices was, one senior Labour strategist told me after the speech, "off the scale". His plan to crackdown on landbanking by forcing developers to "use or lose" their land, which prompted comparisons with Lenin and Robert Mugabe, is supported by the Bolshevik Boris Johnson and Conservative MP Jake Berry

His unremarkable support for a 50p tax rate (recall that Margaret Thatcher retained a top rate of 60p for nine years of her premiership) is shared by 68% of voters, while 48% favour a rate 10p higher. A similar proportion (69%) back his pledge to introduce a mansion tax on property values above £2m and his commitment to workers' rights. According to polling by Populus, 69% agree that "it is important Labour retains its strong links with the Trade Unions because they represent many hard working people in Britain". His promise to repeal the bedroom tax is supported by 59% (it turns out that you can be too tough on welfare). 

In fact, in several respects, Miliband presently lies to the right of the British public. While he deliberates over whether to renationalise the railways, 70% of voters have already sided against privatisation. Almost as many (69%) would like to see the energy companies taken back into public ownership. A majority (60%) want the minimum wage to be raised to the level of the living wage and a full ban on zero-hour contracts. 

The unspoken fear among the right is that Labour has dared to elect a leader with the temerity to offer the public the "left-wing" policies they've always wanted. Socialism, as Ralph Miliband understood it, might be dead, but responsible capitalism, it turns out, is very much alive. 

Ed Miliband delivers his speech to the Labour conference in Brighton on 22 September 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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