Monday, 21 June 2010

The case for Ralph's Milibandism

Is there room for a third Miliband in the Labour leadership contest? In this guest post for Next Left, Harry Barnes, Labour MP for North-East Derbyshire from 1987 to 2005, reports from a Dronfield Labour Party discussion on 'Who are the Milibands' which focused on the ideas of Ralph Miliband, Marxist theorist and father of two candidates in the 2010 contest.

Barnes also asks party members and affiliates to support a call on candidates to issue manifestoes of intent to help to open up debate about the party's values and direction.


Many people think that having two Milibands in the Labour leadership contest is at least one too many. I think that it is not enough.

It would be rather good to have the ideas of Ralph Miliband their late father, emerging at the hustings.

He was a leading Marxist intellectual who had a firm analysis of the class nature of society and argued for the need for serious moves to build socialism. Increasingly he came to stress that the means to socialism needed to be fully democratic - as did its eventual operations. He saw the need for democracy to seep into the very bones of society and not just to be confined to the parliamentary game.

His views were encapsulated in his final book “Socialism for a Sceptical Age” (Polity Press, 1994) when he wrote “(t)here are in effect three core propositions or themes which define socialism, all three equally important, and each related to, and dependent upon, the others. These are democracy, egalitarianism, and socialization of a predominant part of the economy.”

Admittedly as early as the mid 1950’s Ralph had became disillusioned with the Labour Party. In his first book “Parliamentary Socialism” (Merlin Press, 1961) he opened by claiming that “(o)f political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been the most dogmatic - not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference and the conditioning factor of their political behaviour”. None of this was good enough for Ralph and I doubt whether he would have shifted his ground if he had known that half a century later one of his sons might be one of those leaders.

Yet Ralph’s rejection of the Labour Party did not mean that he turned instead to the Communist Party or to Trotskyist Groups. His approach was to seek build an alternative to Labourism in the shape of a genuine Democratic Socialist Party, based on the principles of the society it attempted to prefigure. He pursued this line even when he was limited to mainly keeping the intellectual vision alive with like-minded people via his talks, discussions, writings and his politicking. This was reflected in the work he did with John Saville in setting up, jointly editing and contributing to the annual publication “Socialist Register”.

Ralph did, however, still canvas for left-wing Labour candidates and developed links with Bennites. He took his two sons with him on many such activities. In fact David and Ed were so steeped in his political life-style that when he wrote a long political letter to the young Ed he added “(i)f anyone else read this and did not know the way we talk, or you talk, they would think I was crazy to be writing this to a twelve year old boy; but I know better, and find it very nice”.

Given the active interests of both Ralph and his wife Marion Kozak, politics was natural to David and Ed wherever it would lead them. When they were children, Ralph dedicated his book “Marxism and Politics” (Oxford University Press, 1977) to them. By the time they were 20 and 24, the acknowledgement in his “Divided Societies” (Oxford University Press, 1989) recognised their contributions through his “many discussions” with them. When they reached 25 and 29, their contributions had seemingly turned to criticisms. For in “Socialism for a Sceptical Age” published in 1994, Ralph stated that it gave him “great pleasure to acknowledge the very helpful (and stringent) criticisms I have received from David and Edward Miliband. The book owes much to the advice I have received, even if I have not always followed it”.


But how can we now get Ralph’s democratic socialist values into the leadership debates, when the sons have clearly moved outside of his frame of reference?

Some of us have already had a dry run at doing this. On a Sunday evening kicking off at 8pm, thirty turned up for a Dronfield Labour Party Discussion Group meeting to consider “Who are the Milibands?” The meeting mainly dealt with Ralph’s ideas.

Our speaker was John Halstead who many years ago had been supervised by Ralph when studying at the London School of Economics and whose contribution I have raided for what I wrote above. No formal decisions arose from our meeting, which has been described as one in our series of “blathers”. But some important ideas were floated.

In response to the debate John himself suggested that clear “Manifestos of Intent” needed to be published by all candidates for the leadership to assist a serious debate within the wider Labour Movement. Ideas were also aired on how to seek to attach the Manifestos to those socialist principles which still survive within the Constitution of the Labour Party.

As with all good debates, the thinking and talk does not end when the Chair had to end the meeting - especially when we moved to the lounge bar afterwards. So Ken Curran, a regular at our meetings, went on to produce the initial draft of the following statement which is now drawing in rank-and-file support and has been submitted to the five leadership candidates. David Miliband’s copy was handed to him at his Sheffield meeting on Friday.

We are looking for a debate within the movement about Labour’s values and direction of the kind which Ralph Miliband would have wanted. He certainly would not himself have missed such an opportunity to further his cause.


To the Candidates in the Labour Leadership Election

The supporters of this letter are members of either the Labour Party and/or members of organisations affiliated to the Labour Party who pay their political levy or its equivalent.

Immediately after the election we felt that Labour needed a period of reflection and serious internal debate to assess the reasons for our defeat and to think through the direction we needed to move into.

Instead we have been confronted with an imperfect leadership contest in which the Party’s wider membership and its affiliated bodies have been excluded from the nominating procedure. This has restricted both the range of the political viewpoints and the background links of the candidates who have emerged.

What we feel now needs to be done is to seek to use the current imperfect leadership contest as a means by which we can acquire something like the form of assessment and internal debate which we feel is necessary.

This means that there is a need to divert the current contest away from being just another ’X factor’ game show, towards being a serious debate related to the principles contained in the Labour Party Constitution which state - “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect”.

To help achieve the depth and nature of the debate that we are seeking, we call upon each of the candidates to publish a Manifesto of Intent to make clear to everyone the direction in which they would seek to lead the Labour Party, based on their assessment of the reasons behind the electoral defeat and their interpretation of the direction where the principles quoted above should now lead us.

We ask that these Manifestos of Intent should be distributed widely in order to generate extensive discussion across the Party and beyond, so that this will assist those voting in the leadership contest to reach balanced and principled understandings.

* Party members and those in affiliated organisations are invited to add their support to this letter to candidates, by adding their names via the comment box on the Dronfield Labour blogpost.

* Guest post by Harry Barnes, who blogs at Three score years and ten. The Dronfield Blather blog reports on Dronfield Labour Party's discussion group.


Cantab83 said...

Each leadership candidate should be required to produce a "Manifesto of Intent"?

Sounds like a good idea to me. Better still, it should be based on a list of searching policy questions, perhaps along the lines of:

20 Questions For The Next Labour Leader.

We need to know, not just what the political beliefs, instincts and ideologies of the candidates are, but how imaginative they are in devising solutions to the many problems this country now faces.

I think we all know what the really big questions are. Unfortunately not many of our politicians are prepared to offer any definitive and radical solutions. Without those answers there can be no coherent vision to inspire the electorate.

Harry Barnes said...

Cantab83 : If we could get "Manifestos of Intent" related to the values contained in the Labour Party Constitution from the candidates, then we have something on which a better debate could emerge. If the Manifestos are inadequate, then that at least gives scope for debate within the Party to seek to improve on them. I am in the process of seeking support from the Labour MPs who are still around from when I was there. If I get nil returns and also nothing out of the candidates, then that itself will tell us something. An out of office reply from one former colleague said that I should send another email if no reply was not forthcoming in 28 days!

If you haven't done so already, you can add your name and constituency here -

We need an amemdment to the Labour Party Constitution requiring Manifestos as an extra nominating requirement - ideally to be issued before the opening of nominations.