I’d better come clean. For some time now I’ve been a closet Milibandite. No, not the renegade Westminster branch of the tendency. It was the late Ralph Miliband, father of current Labour leadership contenders David and Ed, who impressed me.
It was not just Ralph Miliband’s ideas but also his approach that persuaded me: a notable modesty, refusal of sectarianism and a combination of deep socialist conviction with constant interrogation of established views, including his own. Such characteristics meant, incidentally, that the only kind of leadership in which he was ever interested was teaching and encouraging others, in every possible form.
The ideas of Miliband senior are of central importance for thinking about political strategy today. They have been developed, modified and practised by many influenced by him. But the profile of these ideas is not always as high as it should be, since no organisation, quite appropriately, has ever been formed around them, beyond open, non-bounded, eclectic projects such as the international annual journal Socialist Register since 1964, the Socialist Society in the 1980s, the Socialist Conferences and Movement in the 1990s and Red Pepper over the past decade and a half.
An ironic side effect of the distinctly tarnished campaign for the Labour throne (tarnished by the toxic record of New Labour – a group of privatisers, torturers and warmongers as far removed from the founders of the Labour Party as fire from water) is that Ralph’s thinking has once again been able to shine.
Ralph Miliband was a lifelong socialist. This fact shaped his intellectual biography and his analysis of the Labour Party came through the prism of envisaging a political strategy for socialists in the UK. As far as the Labour Party is concerned, Ralph developed a distinctively complex and nuanced position – in a context where much of the British left has been bogged down in endless wrangles on simplistic dichotomies of whether to work inside or outside the Labour Party, whether to set up/declare a new party immediately or not, and so on.
Labour and socialism
His classic analysis of the Labour Party, Parliamentary Socialism, analysed the ways that the party’s deep attachment to parliament, and with it to the British state, overrides episodic and largely rhetorical commitments to socialist change, and leads to an under-valuation, and indeed often an outlawing, of extra-parliamentary, social and industrial struggle and politically oriented civic organisation.
In the first edition, Ralph left open the possibility of transforming Labour into a party able to lead a process of socialist change. But after observing Labour in government in 1964-70 he concluded that the DNA of the British state – the reliance on the financial interests of the City and the primacy of the relationship with the US in shaping foreign policy – had become the DNA of the dominant institutions of the Labour Party too. But that was not the end of the Labour Party for socialist strategy.
His analysis of the party’s history, in particular its relationship with the unions, led him to understand that large numbers of socialists were active in it as the only means of working class political expression. They believed, however misguidedly, that through the complex and often opaque institutions of party democracy they could make it their own. He was also realistic about public opinion. Since he clearly recognised that the mass of working class people were not socialists, he rejected the idea that the workers were merely betrayed by its leadership; the main defect of the leadership, in his view, was how little it contributed and how much it got in the way of helping people understand the relevance of socialist policies to their needs.
This analysis led his strategic thinking and engagement in three complementary directions. First, while not remaining a member of the Labour Party, he argued for socialists inside and outside it to collaborate closely, including on broad, non-electoral, political projects. After all, he insisted, they agreed on more than they disagreed. And he put this into practice, working through the Socialist Society with Tony Benn and others in the Campaign group.
At the same time, and without contradiction, he argued that a new party of the left was needed. It couldn’t be simply declared, he made clear, and it would be the result of political processes that we could only in part control, including a change in the electoral system and political collaboration across party divides.
Third, what was needed in the meantime, he argued, were persistent projects of socialist education and consciousness-raising through every possible means, reaching to the grassroots of the trade unions and other social movements. Here again he worked to put these ideas into practice, collaborating at times with Ken Coates, among others who shared the same view. He talked frequently about making socialism the ‘common sense of the age’.
This creative strategic thinking provides a useful compass. It needs to be updated to take account of three distinctive features of today’s context.
First, the things that for so much of the 20th century kept socialists active in the Labour Party – more or less democratic policy-making structures at the constituency and conference level, along with the party’s explicit commitment to socialising the means of production (the original Clause Four) – have been destroyed. They have been replaced by weak consultation processes and by vague pledges of fairness and opportunity amidst a culture that discourages debate, dissent and disagreement – the lifeblood of an active party. Would-be Labour leaders court votes by referring to ‘this great party’ but in many localities the Labour Party, as an organisation, has, under New Labour, become a rump.
Second, we are now surrounded by the carcasses and fading memories of numerous attempts to create new parties of the left. They have foundered on familiar rocks of sectarianism, narrow mindedness and impatience with regard to the conditions under which a party to the left of Labour would be feasible.
These failures have been costly in terms of energies and resources. They have discredited an idea that needs a long period of preparation through collaboration of a non-electoral kind, experimenting and building trust and a common political culture.
Third, the defining issue for the coming years will be the defence (which must also mean imaginative strategies for improvement) of public services and decisive steps towards public control over finance and investment in a green recovery. This has significant strategic implications. More than 60 per cent of TUC affiliates are now public sector unions. Where Thatcher sought, in good part successfully, to destroy the mining and manufacturing unions, the present right intends to destroy these public service unions.
A majority of these are not affiliated to the Labour Party (only around 400,000 of Unison’s 1.2 million members are affiliated to the Labour Party; neither the civil service nor teachers’ unions have political affiliations). This means that on a highly political issue – the future of public services – these unions have to create ways of having a political impact other than through direct influence in the Labour Party.
Thus material and political imperatives converge for all those broadly on the left to collaborate outside of electoral politics. The need presents itself in a more acute way than ever it did in Ralph Miliband’s lifetime to create an independent political force far wider than the Labour Party – and reaching out to social liberals as well as to environmental, feminist and community activists – whose leadership and primary political orientation must be rooted not in Westminster but in communities and workplaces in every city, town and village.
There is nothing inevitable about such a new dynamic. People are still dazed at the scale of the threat to our social well being. But there are signs, to be interpreted cautiously, of bold and strategic public sector alliances (for example in the north east) addressing the wider economic strategy necessary to sustain public services.
Ed Miliband talks of ‘renewing the movement’. Movements are never abstract. What leads people to move is a cause affecting their daily life. What better way of building a movement than for leadership candidates to throw themselves into the political movement emerging for the future of public services and a green and socialised economy that could sustain them?
This would mean breaking from the parliamentarism that Ralph Miliband so rigorously anatomised. It would also mean breaking from a culture that has become so self-referential under New Labour that if parties had arses the obvious metaphor would apply. (And so far, the leadership campaign shows few signs of widening the perspective.)
There is no shortage of intellectuals who have the same limitations of vision. The distinctive feature of Ralph’s work came from his absolute determination to demystify the ideas that made inequality ‘normal’, to uncover the reality, to clarify and to explain and to reach out to those who had the material power to transform that reality. It is for this reason that I am convinced that in the years to come, it is his books and ideas that will come to the fore when the name Miliband is mentioned.
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry