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.