David Coates

Like father, like son? Ralph Miliband’s political legacy

In the wake of the Daily Mail furor, those of us fortunate enough to have known Ralph Miliband as both an intellectual and a political activist recognize well enough that having him as your father is not a negative for any leader of the Labour Party. It is very much a plus.

Quite contrary to the denigrations of the Mail, Ralph Miliband had a life-long faith in the British electorate’s innate intelligence and commitment to social justice.  He just had much less faith in the capacity of the Labour Party in power to deliver on that commitment. Ed Miliband clearly shares his father’s view of the electorate. He simply disagrees with his father on the capacity of the Labour Party to deliver, and he is now in a unique position to prove his father wrong.

Ralph Miliband’s writings leave two powerful lessons for the politics of his son. The first is that the task of the Labour Party is to manage British capitalism in ways that advance the interests of the entirety of the British people, and not just those of its privileged elites. The second is that those elites will inevitably push back heavily against such a management – not least through the machinations of conservative media outlets like the Daily Mail.

So to succeed in power, a Labour Party with radical intentions has no choice but to prepare itself and its electorate for a sustained struggle. It was Ralph Miliband who first introduced me to R.H. Tawney’s advice to Clement Attlee: ‘to kick over an idol, you must first get off your knees.’ Ralph Miliband certainly spent his entire life trying to persuade us all to get up off ours, and to do just that.

The whole thrust of Ralph Miliband’s writing was that the democratic state faced limits from entrenched interests; and that in consequence the task of centre-left leadership was to widen the space for social reform by managing capitalism in the interests of labor. How? Only entering office with the support of an electorate fully mobilized to push back elite constraints, reconfigure key institutions and lock in place a new and fairer social distribution of effort and reward. Only by entering office determined to pursue a growth strategy based on the democratic management of capital and the economic empowerment of labour.[1]

Ralph Miliband despaired of Labour Governments ever coming into power in that fashion because of the elite embrace into which leaders of the Party seemed inevitably to fall; which is why there is such a rich historical irony in play right now – the Labour Party being led by a younger member of the same family, able and willing to test out the Ralph Miliband thesis of inevitable Labour Party de-radicalization.

Ralph Miliband was an expert on the limits of Labourism, but this time round there is one thing of which we can be certain. With his son in charge, there will be no aristocratic embrace blocking the innate radicalism of a new set of Party leaders. What there will be instead will be one generation of a famous radical family testing out the pessimism of its previous generation, testing it out and hopefully finding it wanting. If, as would appear to be the case, Ed Miliband has truly absorbed the force of his father’s teaching as well as of his values, that test and proof awaits us just one general election away. It could be quite a test!

Originally posted on the blog of Social Europe-Journal

[1] See David Coates, ‘Labour after New Labour: Escaping the Debt,” BJPIR, 2012: available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-856X.2012.00514.x/abstract

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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