Ralph Miliband was no great fan of the Labour Party, which was much too moderate for his taste. But I suspect he would have been rather pleased with his son's speech at the Labour conference on Monday afternoon
By Dominic Sandbrook
Lying in a quiet corner of Highgate cemetery, sheltered from the rumbling North London traffic, there’s a plain grey gravestone. ‘Ralph Miliband’, says the inscription. ‘Writer Teacher Socialist.’
At his peak in the Sixties and Seventies, Ed Miliband’s father was one of the best-known intellectuals in Britain. A political theorist at the London School of Economics, he was a devout follower of Karl Marx and an unswerving believer in revolutionary socialism. So his final resting place, just 12 yards from Marx’s own grave, could hardly be more fitting.
As an unashamed apostle of the far Left, Mr Miliband senior was no great fan of the Labour Party, which was much too moderate for his taste. But I suspect he would have been rather pleased with his son’s speech at the Labour conference on Monday afternoon.
It is hard to remember the last time a Labour leader made such an unashamed pitch to his party’s Left. After all, can you imagine Tony Blair, or even Gordon Brown, promising to introduce price controls, ramp up taxes for the rich, and take privately owned land into state ownership?
Yet as Mr Miliband toured TV studios yesterday in a bid to fend off the mounting criticism of his pledge to cap energy prices, he seemed remarkably untroubled by the furore. Perhaps he sensed that somewhere, in some unearthly Marxist paradise, his father was nodding with approval.
Mr Miliband was not, of course, the only star of the Labour conference. He had to share top billing with his old comrade Damian McBride, whose explosive memoirs exposed the shamefully rotten underbelly of Gordon Brown’s court.
For me, however, the book’s most revealing passage is Mr McBride’s acute dissection of his old friend’s psychology. It is, he writes, ‘hard to listen to any of Ed Miliband’s occasionally tortured, over-academic speeches about New Labour’s record and his own political vision without hearing his father’s voice, especially when he talks about recasting the capitalist model’.
Indeed, Mr McBride even argues that it was Ed Miliband’s obsession with his father’s legacy that drove him to challenge his Blairite brother David for the Labour leadership.
There was more to it, he suggests, than ordinary sibling rivalry. For winning the leadership was Ed Miliband’s ‘ultimate tribute to his father’ — an attempt ‘to achieve his father’s vision and ensure that David Miliband did not traduce it’.
Mr McBride's book even argues that it was Ed Miliband's obsession with his father's legacy that drove him to challenge his Blairite brother David for the Labour leadership
None of us, of course, can ever really know what is going on inside somebody else’s head, especially that of a politician steeped in the dark arts of spin and obfuscation. Even so, Mr McBride’s analysis of the Labour leader’s motives has the ring of truth.
What really matters to ordinary families, though, is not where Mr Miliband is coming from, but where he wants to take us. And on this evidence, his ideal society looks worryingly like the seedy, shabby, downbeat world of Britain in the mid-1970s.
The last time a Labour leader went to the polls promising an explicit cap on prices was February 1974, when Harold Wilson squeaked home against the Tories’ Edward Heath.
At the time, Wilson had the most radical Left-wing manifesto in living memory, although it was later joined by Michael Foot’s notoriously unappealing ‘suicide note’ manifesto in 1983.
Ironically, Wilson greatly disliked his own manifesto, which had been forced on him by the Labour Left. But on the evidence of Monday’s speech, I suspect his 21st-century successor would relish its enthusiasm for State intervention in the market economy.
The last time a Labour leader went to the polls promising an explicit cap on prices was February 1974, when Harold Wilson (pictured) squeaked home against the Tories' Edward Heath
Mr Miliband’s extraordinary promise to seize private land for development, for example, is pure Seventies state socialism, reviving the 1974 manifesto’s pledge that ‘land required for development will be taken into public ownership, so that land is freely and cheaply available for new houses, schools, hospitals and other purposes’.
His populist pledge to fix energy bills for two years also echoes the rhetoric of the 1970s. Indeed, Wilson’s manifesto went even further, promising to ‘introduce strict price control on key services and commodities’ — including food and energy.
Mr Miliband insists that he merely wants to cap energy prices, not all prices. But this rings false. Once the principle of State controls has been re-established, why would you stop with energy? Why not target supermarkets, as you have taken aim at the power giants, and cap food prices too?
But the historical record of price controls does not make attractive reading.
When the state of California tried to fix energy prices in 2001, the result was a wave of shortages and blackouts. Lifts ground to a halt with passengers inside, while parents packed their children off to school with blankets to keep them warm.
Britain’s history of price controls, meanwhile, is nothing short of disastrous. The controls of the mid-Seventies, which involved gigantic Pay Boards and Price Commissions that seemed like something from a Soviet tractor co-operative, proved a big economic failure.
Indeed, far from keeping inflation down, Wilson’s controls stoked it even higher. For as economists often point out, price controls are usually self-defeating, driving up demand and limiting supply.
‘If you want to create a shortage of tomatoes,’ the American economist Milton Friedman once explained, ‘just pass a law that retailers can’t sell tomatoes for more than two cents per pound.
Instantly you’ll have a tomato shortage. It’s the same with oil or gas.’
Even worse was the fact that, like Mr Miliband, Wilson made no corresponding pledge to keep down workers’ pay. Inflation promptly shot through the roof, and within a year it had reached a post-war record of 26 per cent, driving down living standards for millions of ordinary families.
Given that most older voters remember those years of strikes and blackouts with a shudder, it is baffling that Mr Miliband is so keen to resurrect the values of the Seventies.
What we saw on Monday was the real Ed Miliband, the idealistic son of a North London Marxist who believes there is no problem that state intervention cannot fix
The truth, I suspect, is that he sees nothing wrong with the prospect of massive state intervention in the economy. Too young to remember properly the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent, he has made it his mission to roll back Thatcherism, just as his Marxist father would have wanted.
There is, of course, a more cynical interpretation of all this, which holds that Mr Miliband was making a ruthlessly populist bid to win the votes of hard-pressed households in Middle Britain. But I think he was being completely sincere.
I think what we saw on Monday was the real Ed Miliband, the idealistic son of a North London Marxist who believes there is no problem that state intervention cannot fix.
He may joke about his Red Ed nickname, but deep down, I suspect he rather likes it.
No wonder, then, that Left-wing activists were so thrilled with his speech. And no wonder it drew such applause from the hard-Left union boss Len McCluskey, who hailed Mr Miliband’s ‘courageous vision’.
Whether the British people will be quite so impressed is another matter. Bad memories of the Seventies run deep, and I find it hard to believe that many ordinary voters are itching for a re-run of the decade that fashion and economics forgot.
Still, at least nobody can claim that there is nothing to choose between the parties, or that they do not know where Mr Miliband stands.
Indeed, when a supporter asked at the weekend, ‘When are you going to bring back socialism?’, the Labour leader’s reply spoke volumes. ‘That’s what we are trying to do, sir,’ he said.