“When will you bring back socialism?” Ed Miliband was asked in 2013 by one of Labour’s possibly erstwhile supporters at an event. Ed’s response was: “That’s what we’re doing, sir.” While his response wasn’t particularly true (price freezes and matching Tory cuts like for like wasn’t exactly a Marxist agenda), it was a perception Miliband was happy to have people buy into. The then Labour leader clearly wanted to project the idea that socialism was alive and well in Britain. He clearly felt that enough people in the country bought into socialism as a concept. And then the parliament concluded with a general election that saw the Tories gaining enough seats for a majority.
Most social democratic parties in Europe have essentially been wedded to the goal of protecting the state as constructed in the immediate post-war period. The problem for the Labour Party is that it is not a social democratic party in the truest European sense – it uses the term democratic socialist, which may just seem like a minor switching around of two words to a lot of people but is in fact a key difference. A classic European social democratic party, as I say, is dedicated to preserving as much of the post-war settlement as possible; a democratic socialist party is, in theory at least, dedicated to full nationalisation of industry. So really, post-Clause IV moment, is Labour a socialist party in anything other than rhetorical terms? And if the answer to that is no, then what is the point of it exactly?
The Blair years seemed, at the time, to have put this question to rest for good. However, we can now see that there was simply a decade and a half moratorium on the subject. Blair was a political triangulator: the essence was to accept that Thatcher probably had a point or two about the unions, about propping up moribund industry, about the role of the free market in British society while saying there was a nicer alternative to Margaret’s purism. The idea of Blairism was to turn Thatcherism on its head and say, yes, those things are political realities but we should do what we can for those most badly affected by it. This was exactly what the country wanted, which is why Blair won three elections.
The problem was, as we see now, the Labour Party never truly accepted Blair’s ideas of what it should be if it wanted to win without deciding what it really preferred to be instead (and Blair’s tainting via Iraq is an unfortunate factor which adds further to the confusion). However, an even bigger problem for Labour now is that even within the growing ranks of those disaffected with politics as they currently stand and approach this disaffection from a leftish bent, there aren’t many who are actually keen on socialism in high numbers. Look at the brief but notable Green surge earlier this year, or Russell Brand’s populist form of discontent. It’s low on serviceable ideas, but the ethos is clear enough. It is a brand of far-left liberalism, one in which the state acts as a sort of guarantor of freedom. Whatever you can say about this, and there’s plenty I can say in the negative about it, it’s definitely not socialism.
I suppose as a liberal I’m somewhat throwing stones from a glasshouse here: the party that best represents my ideology has been reduced to eight seats. And is probably about to have a grand battle for what the term liberalism really means. However, liberalism, like conservatism, is an essential political construct. Although its definition will always be fought over, it will also always exist. Socialism does not have the same right to life. We look set for one party to dominate the conservative v liberalism debate in Britain (thus why twenty years of Tory hegemony could be ahead of us), unless liberalism can be captured by the Left in a way that appeals to a large slice of Britain. But unless something unexpected happens and Liz Kendall becomes Labour leader, this isn’t a debate Labour seems even remotely interested in engaging with.