A lot of ink has been spilled on all sides over Ed Miliband’s speech last week, including by yours truly. But I hope ConHome readers will forgive a few further reflections on this extraordinary moment in British politics.
1. He really means it
Labour has moved hard to what used to be called the left, 18 months before the election. As Dan Hodges has pointed out, Miliband’s speech called for state intervention to set energy prices and to repossess some privately owned land for housing. Further hints suggest state action against the banks, against railway companies, and perhaps against oil companies to control petrol prices directly. This is potentially the most radical and, yes, socialist policy platform seen in Britain for thirty years.
2. Labour’s energy policy isn’t merely bad economics; it isn’t a policy at all
Many people have denounced Labour’s energy policy as bad economics, and it is. But actually it’s worse; it isn’t in fact a policy at all. As I pointed out at the time, Labour have offered no detail at all as to how their proposed price-fixing might work. All retail energy prices, or just an average price level? Real prices or inflation-adjusted? Will there also be a ban on new offers at higher prices, and if so, how? Can people trade down? And all this is before you consider the effects on customer service, investment, resilience, green and nuclear generation etc. Or Labour’s—and specifically ex-DECC Secretary of State Ed Miliband’s—central role in creating the present energy regime between 1997 and 2010.
3. Edward Miliband is not the new Teddy Roosevelt
There has been much comment comparing Ed Miliband with Teddy Roosevelt. But the comparison is absurd, indeed embarrassing. Teddy Roosevelt was not perfect, of course—far from it. But by any standards he was a person of enormous substance: a naturalist and scientist, a wonderful writer who composed an acclaimed history of the War of 1812, a skilled naval administrator, someone who worked his passage through politics from state assemblyman in New York to the presidency. This is a man, let’s not forget, who assembled a regiment of Rough Riders and personally led them in a famous charge up San Juan Hill in 1898, during the Cuban war.
Not so the Labour leader, alas. In 2011 I pointed out that his official Labour party CV covered the first 13 years of his working life in one sentence of 18 words. It has now apparently been removed from the party’s website altogether.
But the difference between the two men is not merely one of personal achievement. Politically, the vital point about Teddy Roosevelt is that (like his cousin Franklin) he was seen as a traitor to his class: as a member of a privileged elite who turned against that elite—against the mine owners, the rail trusts, the banks—in order to serve the people. It was the trust that this bravery created, as well as Roosevelt’s own experience and drive, which made him so effective.
By contrast, Ed Miliband is a member of Labour’s aristocracy, his father from an older generation than the Blairs and Straws and Prescotts whose offspring now seek an unmerited preferment. In seeking such easy applause, he is not bravely turning against his class; he is reinforcing it.
4. Where has Blue Labour disappeared to?
One of the most noted aspects of Mr Miliband’s tenure has been the emergence of Blue Labour: the movement to recover traditions and ideas of the Left—many of them rather small-c conservative—before they were swamped by the turn to a state-first Fabianism after the First World War. And Blue Labour has been led by fascinating figures such as Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas MP, Labour’s policy chief.
This has been a very hopeful development for British politics. In particular, it holds open the promise of a genuinely thoughtful debate across the political spectrum about the limitations of the state and different ways to renew society and improve public services. Perfect, one might think, for a time in which “there is no money left.”
But where is Blue Labour now? In tatters. Labour’s new policy platform is a study in the primitive exercise of state power: freezing prices and repossessing land, ramping up taxes and spending and debt. That’s red, not blue.
5. The real argument is over Crony Capitalism
But the real political argument at present isn’t so much about the traditional categories of left and right, of class or political party. It’s about whether those in the political class understand the difficulties of everyday life, and what they are actually doing to address them.
Many of these problems arise from what I have called Crony Capitalism, in which business activity loses any relation to, and often clashes with, the wider public interest; and business merit is separated from business reward.
Examples abound, from Fred Goodwin to Goldman Sachs’ tax avoidance to rising bank charges to escalating CEO pay to the scandals of the Private Finance Initiative, and the governments of Messrs Blair and Brown were both deeply complicit in its emergence. This is one reason why real wages stopped growing for the bottom third of earners not in 2008, but in 2003.
Ed Miliband may not be Teddy Roosevelt, his energy prices policy may be crude socialist populism, and—in my judgement at least—the British people are far too wise to fall for it. But there is no doubt that many areas of our economy are still in the grip of crony capitalism, or that the social anger he is trying to tap into is real.
That’s why the work of individual Conservative MPs such as Robert Halfon, Laura Sandys and Andrea Leadsom has been so important in tackling individual abuses. It’s why the Government has been right to focus on reducing the cost of living, whether on childcare or fuel prices or council tax. And it’s why we as a party need to continue to bear down on this issue—and the vested interests and underperforming markets that foster it—as hard as we can. After all, let’s not forget Teddy Roosevelt was a conservative.