Judging by certain Tory op-eds, you could be forgiven for thinking the Red Army has been given permission to water its horses in the River Thames. On the loose is a fanatical “demagogue [who] wants to fuel tensions and the politics of envy”, according to City AM editor Allister Heath. Britain is on the “road to tyranny”, according to Iain Martin of the Telegraph.
Believe it or not, red revolution is not imminent, and Lenin remains safely encased in his mausoleum in Red Square. Over in Cuba, Raul Castro is pressing ahead with free-market reforms, and to my knowledge there have been no recent sightings of the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Mild-mannered Labour leader Ed Miliband has, however, pledged to freeze energy bills for 20 months should his party win the 2015 election. And these days, that’s apparently all it takes for a red scare.
At some point during the past 30 years, the mildest hint of social democracy became a symptom of innate Jacobinism. Fastened like glue to a dogma which dictates that one can never interfere in markets without catastrophically distorting them, the fact the country escaped financial catastrophe five years ago only because of massive state intervention has entirely passed the right by. A Labour leader has said the state must intervene to ensure that people can adequately heat their homes; therefore the country is on the road to serfdom. Such is the level of public debate in much of the Tory press.
In noisily whipping itself into a frenzy over Miliband’s plan to freeze energy prices, the right has turned a blind eye to mounting revulsion over private firms bloating and sating themselves on public money for the benefit of the few who are good at guessing on the stock exchange. Not only is public opinion increasingly at odds with socialism for the rich – in 2010/11, Network Rail, the private owner and operator of most of Britain’s rail infrastructure, was subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of £3.96bn – but voters are significantly more red than ‘Red Ed’ when it comes to state intervention in the economy.
In 2009, for example, data showed that 31 per cent strongly supported the renationalisation of electricity, gas, water, railways and telecommunications, with 36 per cent slightly supporting renationalisation. According to a ComRes poll taken earlier this month, 69 per cent wanted energy renationalised.
The trend is similar in other sectors of the economy too. Seventy per cent are against the sell-off of the Royal Mail, according to a recent Sunday Times poll, while 53 per cent believe private sector involvement in the NHS undermines the health service. As for the railways, a poll conducted last year found that over half the public supported full nationalisation, with even Conservative supporters preferring nationalisation to the status quo (Mail on Sunday stalwart Peter Hitchens wants the railways returned to public ownership, for crying out loud).
The politicians’ mantra of public bad, private good has become just that: an empty mantra, espoused by a political class that is increasingly at odds with the views of those they are supposed to represent.
The mistake would be to draw from this an unrealistic, romanticised image of old-style state ownership, which in reality could be just as unaccountable and inefficient as the very worst of the private sector. Despite what his detractors say, Ed Miliband is not advocating a return to state ownership, nor is he planning to introduce 1970s-style price controls; he is proposing a freeze on the price of energy lasting a mere 20 months. In other words, a very temporary brake on fat cats getting fatter while the elderly shiver in homes they can no longer afford to heat (in March of this year, five Centrica executives pocketed £16.4m).
But public enthusiasm for a reassertion of government control over essential services should give the left heart even if it would be a mistake to pretend that it is 1945 all over again. Public disaffection with the private ownership of large natural monopolies provides ample public space to promote other, more democratic models of ownership in which workers participate fully in the running of their enterprises and, just as importantly, have a say when it comes to divvying up the profits. Democratic socialism, I believe it is called.
Appropriately, it was Karl Marx who once wrote that the tradition of all dead generations “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. In this respect, the zeal for privatisation that reached a zenith in the 1980s has left an indelible impression on our political elite, many of whom came of age during Margaret Thatcher’s enthusiastic attempt at dismantling the post-war consensus. While the public has long since moved on, many conservative commentators remain marooned in the 1980s, instinctively horrified by a reality that sits uneasily with many of their most basic assumptions.
Today it isn’t corrupt bureaucrats or incompetent state managers that people are fed up of, but private sector fat cats who jack up the prices of things we cannot do without and then hold the country to ransom when anyone has the temerity to question it. No wonder Ed Miliband was so quick to reply in the affirmative when asked if he was “bringing back socialism”: he might well be on to a vote winner.