At the Labour Conference this week, post Mitchell-gate, a lot of those present will be back to their class war comfort zone. There will be a great deal of talk about entitlement. It will be alleged that after Eton and Oxford, David Cameron decided that he'd toddle off and run the country; sort of thing a chap does. This would be laughable, but for two points. First, many otherwise partly-sensible Labour people actually believe it. The hall will be full of delegates from Shoulder-under-Chip, who cannot bear the thought of an Old Etonian in No.10. Second, there is an issue with entitlement: a Labour party one.
Let us start with David Cameron's political career. At Oxford, he took no part in undergraduate politicking. But his politics Tutor, Vernon Bogdanor – no Tory he – described him as the best pupil he had ever taught. So he had a serious interest, which he decided to take further. He was recruited by the Conservative Research Department (CRD), much the most formidable political grande ecole in British history. He made an immediate impact and was rapidly promoted. During the 1992 Election, aged 25, he did about five men's work. Kenneth Baker, Norman Lamont, John Major, Chris Patten and Michael Portillo were only some of those who were hugely impressed by him.
He seemed to have all the strokes and an immense amount of time to play the ball. He had brains, stamina and an attractive personality. A good team member, he also displayed leadership. In addition, he had a quality that cannot be taught and which a surprising number of senior politicians lack: political judgment. Everyone agreed that he would rise high (though no-one thought that he would be leader of the party only 13 years later). Inasmuch as Eton was discussed – which was seldom – it was regarded as a disadvantage. If only he could have been everything he was, but from a school that was not a four-letter word.
With the academic record – and the contacts – to launch his career, his range of abilities would have taken him to the top in the City. It would be interesting to calculate how many millions of pounds he has foregone in favour of politics. This is a man who is in politics because he is good at it, because he is a patriot and because he wants to improve the condition of Britain. None of that has anything to do with entitlement. He has been derided for saying that he thought he would be good at being Prime Minister. One can understand why that makes the Labour party uneasy. Over to you, Ed Miliband…
Mr Miliband was brought up in a Marxist household. If not to plebs, there would have been lots of references to the proletariat. His father Ralph managed to avoid the impoverishment which Marx had predicted for the proles, by becoming a successful property speculator. He also left an intellectual legacy. The grown-up Ed may not share all his father's views, but he does believe in the moral superiority of socialism. In view of that, he also believes that socialists should be running the country. This is still a widespread view in Labour's upper echelons. Last week, Douglas Alexander proclaimed that he was born into the Labour party. He clearly assumes that this gives him an aristocratic entitlement to feel superior.
Yet these Left-wing aristocrats have a problem. They are convinced that socialism has all the answers. But what is socialism? After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the triumph of the market and the spread of globalisation, what is left of the Left? The insistence that only socialists are entitled to the moral high-ground sounds increasingly absurd and peevish, now that all the "isms" have become "wasms". It is worth reading the latest issue of the New Statesman, which is a better publication than it used to be in the days when it was written in brown rice. But last week's was almost a regression to the brown rice past. Writer after writer was in search of Labour's big idea. After all, we are socialists, our intellectual and moral credentials are insurpassable, so there must be a big idea…somewhere.
Before embarking on that latest Staggers, pour a glass of something competent and brace yourself. Your patience is about to be tried. In your fruitless effort to make sense of what these six actors in search of an idea are on about, you will wade through wiffle, waffle and evasion. Reading the stuff is like wrestling with ectoplasm. That sounds like a metaphor taken from a ghost story, which is appropriate. It is the tale of the ghost of socialism.
There is a further difficulty. A few weeks ago, it might have seemed possible to come up with an interim definition: socialism as a British version of Francois Hollande's policies. But we can already see where those are heading. M. Hollande announced that he would be President Normal: not a hard task, in comparison with Nicolas Sarkozy. It turns out, however, that the new Chef de Grenouilles was exaggerating, by one syllable. He will merely be President Mal. That will not help Ed Miliband to be elected.
To be fair to Mr Miliband, he does realise that electability would involve a concordat with the middle classes. What he does not know is that Harold Macmillan got there first. In 1957, he sent a note to Michael Fraser, the then Director of the CRD. "Who are the middle classes?" he enquired. "What do they want, and can we give it do them?" Although one suspects a degree of disingenuousness, this was a successful strategy. It was as if Macmillan, catching a train to shoot at Chatsworth, leant out of a first-class window to pronounce a blessing on all the washing machines, the semi-detached houses and the Hillman Minxes. Those were the years when the Tory party managed to associate itself with the aspirational classes, while priggish Wykehamist Hugh Gaitskell – anything but a puritan in his own private life – seemed to disapprove of all this prosperity.
But how is Ed Miliband going to woo the aspirational classes? To judge by his latest attempts, clumsily. This would indeed appear to be a senior politician with no political judgment. He started by wrapping himself in the Union Flag. Although somewhat unBritish, that would not necessarily be a bad idea, if it were sort of plausible. From Mr Miliband, it is not remotely plausible. Politicians should never swathe themselves in grotesquely ill-fitting garments. They should leave that to clowns.
Worse was to follow. Yesterday, awkward Ed tried to evoke the memory of 1945. He should be joining Mr Cameron in a detention from the history beak. Which aspects of 1945 attract him most? Is it conscription, the death penalty, the criminalisation of homosexuality, corporal punishment in prisons, the widespread use of corporal punishment in schools? Or is it just the equally widespread impoverishment? (See Paul Goodman in this morning's Left Watch.) Clearly, Mr Miliband has written rather more history than he has read.
The poor fellow sounds so awkward because he is labouring under an unsustainable burden of entitlement. I am a socialist. Therefore I ought to be running the country. I ought also to have the best ideas. So what are they? It has been argued in this column, no doubt with excessive repetition, that thus far, David Cameron has failed to define himself. But this is a self-inflicted weakness. He simply has to reach into his soul and find the right words. His opponent has a vastly harder task. There are no right words. Come to think of it, do Milipedes have souls? Whatever the answer, they certainly have tin ears and tin mouths.