Thursday, May 23, 2013
In making his speech to Google yesterday and as part of his advocacy of "responsible capitalism", Ed Miliband made the following statement as a means of distancing his views from those of his Marxist father, Ralph Miliband. Democratic Socialists don't have to be Marxists to the extent that Ralph was in order to be deeply disturbed about the nature of Ed's brief argument.
His father, he said, "thought that the route to a fair society was not through capitalism but through socialism based on public ownership. 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. Tony Blair got rid of it and rightly so, because nationalising the major industries is not the route to a fair society."
A problem with this argument is that Ed does not distinguish nationalisation from other possible forms of public ownership. If he feels that it is public ownership itself which is problematic, what does he feel should happen to the remains of our public services in areas such as the NHS, the Royal Mail, the Armed Forces and in the remnants our post-war school system? If Ed sees the future economic pattern as one that should be dominated by "responsible capitalism", then is there a limit to his vision? Or has the "inevitability of gradualness" which Sidney Webb saw as being associated with the advance of public services, now been transferred to the growth of Ed's favoured form of responsible capitalism? Does he want more capitalism or less?
There are many possible forms of non-capitalist economic and social structures - including co-operatives, worker-controlled firms, voluntary bodies, services by local authorities, public services and nationalised firms (whose operations could be democratised to overcome any problems which arose from the model pursued by Labour immediately after the Second World War). These all need forms of regulation and patterns of worker and consumer involvement - which (at the least) is what Ed will need in his efforts to make capitalism act responsibly. For I assume that he knows that preaching is not enough to get exploitive and corrupt capitalism to behave reasonably. Of course, even if we can find some nice cuddley capitalists, these will not be able to ignore the logic of the market in which there are pressures to purchase in the cheapest market (whether for raw materials, technological improvement, or for labour costs) and to sell in the dearest market (via cheap transport, advertising and other marketing techniques).
When Tony Blair came along with his vision of New Labour, many in the Labour Party went along with him thinking it was only a gimmick to ensure the return of a Labour Government. They soon learnt that this was not the case, although far too many Labour activists then just accepted what they were given. Is the same pattern happening under Ed? Perhaps his "One Nation Labour" owes far more to the ideas of Benjamin Disraeli than is being assumed. Is Labour now being re-shaped to seek to do no more than tackle what Ted Heath called the "unacceptable face of capitalism"? At the best, Labour would then be aiming to become a non-Thatcherite version of the Conservative Party. But Labour would then be the descendants of Disreali and not of Keir Hardie. It would be much better to have a modern varient of the views of the latter, than of the former.