Alex Massie

What Does Ed Miliband Know of Liberalism?

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As if to prove the point of this post, Ed Miliband pops up in the Guardian to treat Liberal Democrat voters as though they're lost sheep who should return to the Labour fold. Apparently the Lib Dem leadership has led the party into government and abandoned its members who should, natch, return home to Labour. Why you would want to swap power for opposition remains mysterious but there you have it.

One thing Miliband does make clear, mind you, is that he has no understanding of what the term "liberal" means. )Or, to be fair, perhaps just a different understanding from me.) In Miliband's World markets are a betrayal of liberalism. Indeed he goes further: free markets "devastate the proud legacy of liberalism". This must count as news for many of us. And for Hayek and Friedman too, both of whom were liberals. According to Miliband Minor:

Our society is at risk of being reshaped in ways that will devastate the proud legacy of liberalism. We see a free market philosophy being applied to our schools, wasteful top-down reorganisation of our NHS, and the undermining of our green credentials with cuts to investment.

At some point you have to conclude that this is not a mistake here or there, but part of a pattern. The pattern is of a leadership that has sold out and betrayed your traditions, including that of your recent leadership: Steel, Ashdown, Kennedy and Campbell.

Is that it? School choice, an admittedly questionable set of NHS reforms and some unspecified "undermining of our green credentials" (whatever they may be and whatever that may mean). That's all he has to say? If that's as bad as the government will be then, blimey, it's not much of a charge sheet. And of course I'd suggest that Nick Clegg, whatever his shortcomings, is more liberal than any of the predecessors Miliband mentions.

He continues:

I believe I am winning the argument that we must turn the page on New Labour and the mistakes it led us to. For example, the argument is being won that a graduate tax based on income would be fairer than tuition fees and a market in higher education. The argument is being won that on issues like ID cards and stop-and-search we became too casual about the liberties of individual

Note again this hostility to markets - that while often imperfect are a prerequisite for a liberal society - and note too how Miliband claims that liberal criticisms of Labour's record on civil liberties somehow reflects well on him and that supporters of parties now in government that opposed his own party's record should abandon ship and join the merry throng of latterday converts now that the battle is, if not actually over, then at least being won. Some chutzpah that! (Oh, and a graduate tax remains a bad idea and not a liberal one either even if emanates from the Lib Dems.)

More Miliband:

I want to take my party on a journey to a different identity for the future: social democratic on economic policy, standing for redistribution and tackling inequality, liberal in our respect for individual rights.

That is a mission which contrasts with the mission Nick Clegg is taking you on: small state in respect of individual liberty, but small state too on economics. With me, you won't have to choose between whether to accept a reactionary assault on the welfare state in exchange for greater civil liberties.

Oh really? What's reactionary about suggesting millionaires needn't receive child benefit? It's asking too much, I know, of Miliband to expect him to see that when Labour leadership candidates start talking about matching corporation tax levels to pay scales (Miliband, E) or proposing restrictions upon foreign-born workers sending money home to relatives (Balls, E) then some of us wonder whether they have any real idea of what liberalism means and end up by concluding that, actually, they do not.

New Labour had its achievements (and some - eg, gay rights - were genuine liberal advances) but it was not always a liberal government and when it did have liberal instincts it often - thanks in part to the Gordon Brigade - failed to have the courage of its convictions. Indeed, the "New" part of "New Labour" was the liberal part and precisely the part that Miliband Minor keeps telling us needs to be disowned. That he tries to be a champion of liberalism while doing so is, I suppose, bold or audacious but I'm not sure it's terribly convincing.

But of course perhaps his definition of liberalism is very different from mine. That said, he deserves some small credit for pitching an appeal to people who did not vote Labour. It's unfortunate then that his pitch traduces liberalism in quite such style.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.