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.