Every opposition leader sometimes needs to act as a saboteur. Ed Miliband showed his wrecking skills this week, picking a fight with the Daily Mail about an article it had published saying that his Marxist father ‘hated Britain’. The row overshadowed the Conservative party conference and sparked a debate which informed those who did not previously know (or care) that Ralph Miliband was an asylum seeker who arrived in Britain as a teenager and repaid his adopted country by fighting Nazis while serving in the Royal Navy. Miliband’s absurd overreaction upstaged what little the Tories had to say that day.
Of the four main political parties, Labour had the most successful conference. Ukip’s meeting was a fiasco, confirming suspicions that it is a lawless protest movement rather than a political party. The Liberal Democrats had a quiet meeting, as you’d expect when a party representing southwest England decides to convene in Glasgow. The Tory conference was full but stable — not a bad outcome for a party whose members normally just turn up for the political violence. But Labour managed to set the agenda. Their pledge to cap energy prices demonstrates that Ed Miliband really does mean what he says about bringing back socialism.
In spite of his protestations, Miliband’s family upbringing is of the utmost importance. He twice praised his mother in his conference speech, and not once his father Ralph, whose Marxist books concluded that elected politicians can never introduce socialism (the joke in Labour circles is that his son will unwittingly prove him right). But an echo of Ralph Miliband’s jejune notions can be found in what Ed Miliband now proposes — and what Labour will do under his leadership.
It is, of course, nonsense to say that Ralph Miliband ‘hated’ his country. It is quite possible for a patriotic left-winger to loathe the political system and even hope to bring down its government. There certainly is such a thing as National Socialism and when implemented in Europe in the 1930s, it was certainly patriotic. The problem is that it destroyed countries, their people and their neighbours. It was an irony that those fleeing this murderous creed, as Ralph Miliband did in 1940, should have devoted themselves to a different kind of socialism. The Marxist variant has proven just as lethal. The real enemies of socialism, in both its Marxist and nationalistic forms, opt for freedom and place faith in people rather than state control. This is the Conservative way.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has hardly been necessary to point out the errors of socialism. Ed Miliband has rejected his father’s Marxism, and Labour had come to understand that capitalism (to use that odd word given to non-governmental activity) is the best way of fighting poverty and improving the lives of the masses. But the crash has opened a new chapter. The recovery, such as it is, does look more like the kind of capitalism the likes of Ralph Miliband so loathed: benefiting the rich, not the poor. There is indeed a crisis in living standards, as Ed Miliband understands.
But his answer is to reintroduce the 1970s idea of price-capping. In doing so, he has transformed the political debate. Rather than attempt to rebuild the Blairite ‘Big Tent’, he is pursuing a core vote strategy which looks as if it might work for him: on current polls, he will win the election with a healthy majority. His posturing as a crusader who takes on newspapers may well see him revive plans for state licensing of the media; Labour could probably win a vote in Parliament with the support of Liberal Democrats. We do not to have to wait for the election. Miliband is a danger right now.
This has cheered up Conservatives no end. Tory treasurers report that Ed Miliband’s speech has done more to revive donations than any given by David Cameron. Labour’s leftwards lurch has raised the stakes in the next election, and served notice to anyone with money that Red Ed would have them hand much more over to the government.
Miliband is, at present, the bookmakers’ favourite to win the next election — not because he is popular, but because the right is split and the left is united. The lack of drama at the Tory conference masks a quiet consolidation of the British right — which has often seemed fractious, even regicidal. No longer. As Prime Minister, David Cameron is now defined by what he does rather than what he says. In the last year, his government has deported Abu Qatada, opened scores of free schools, pledged a referendum on the European Union, backed marriage in the tax system and hired Lynton Crosby to restore focus to the Tory machine. This narrative of quiet (if slow) progress looks far more attractive now that it is juxtaposed with a Labour party proffering populist socialism.
Politics is returning to an old choice: Tory realism versus Labour’s la-la land. Five decades ago Iain Macleod, a former Tory chancellor and editor of this magazine, ended his conference speech with a neat summary of the political menu. ‘Labour may scheme their schemes. The Liberals may dream their dreams. But we have work to do.’ That, once again, is the Conservative mission.