On Radio 4’s Today programme this morning Justin Webb was interviewing Ed Miliband about his party conference speech. “When you see the headlines saying Red Ed is back, back to the 70s, etcetera, you don’t mind that do you? You don’t mind people saying it’s left-wing. It is,” goaded Webb.
“I don’t see it that way, I see it as a truly One Nation approach,” stammered Miliband, running a mile from the l***-w*** word.
It’s testament to Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, subsequently absorbed and entrenched by New Labour, that “left-wing”, not even the more loaded “socialist”, has the power of a slur as opposed to an obvious truth about a party that originated in the labour movement. Stigmatising an entire wing of political thought is quite an achievement: There Is No Alternative indeed.
You expect this kind of Red Ed guff from the Mail or Telegraph but it’s much more depressing coming from the BBC. People who accuse the corporation of left-wing or right-wing bias are both right and wrong. The BBC’s real bias, shared by most of the mainstream media, is towards certain key assumptions that take on the status of incontrovertible fact. In some cases, for example gay rights and climate change, the assumptions favour the left. In economics, however, they are generally conservative.
One example is that austerity is presented as painful but sensible and necessary while Keynesian economics is eccentric and even dangerous. What makes Keynesianism both brilliant and hard to sell is that is counter-intuitive to people who mistake national budgets for household budgets writ large. To families sat around the proverbial kitchen table the solution to debt is to spend less and the idea of borrowing your way out of a recession with stimulus spending can seem reckless. It’s instinctive but it’s also wrong and the media shouldn’t settle for accepting and reiterating the kitchen-table “commonsense” view.
Another assumption is that wealth matters more than equality, so rising house prices in the South East are instinctively celebrated despite the social damage they cause, intensifying the north-south imbalance and driving workers on modest incomes, let alone benefit claimants, out of the capital. And multinational corporations are depicted as a delicate flowers who might be driven out of the country every time a policy makes the tiniest dent in their profit margins. Some of the very rich have even convinced themselves that they are victims and the actual victims of the finance industry’s malfeasance are brutal bullies. AIG chief executive Bob Benmosche this week compared anger over bankers’ bonuses to racist lynching in the Deep South decades ago.
Yet another conservative assumption is the idea that the economic traumas of the 1970s (a period of unparalleled equality in Britain by the way) were caused by an excess of socialism instead of a number of different factors including oil shocks. This inaccurate bogeyman is revived unquestiongly any time Labour dares to suggest an even mildly left-wing policy. Justin Webb described Labour’s criticism of big businesses as “a throwback”, as if that side of the argument were as redundant as a Bay City Rollers scarf but much more scary. No matter how many businesses are fined by regulators for outrageous misbehaviour, criticism can only mean the dreaded 70s.
The truth is that most governments in most western countries in most decades have overwhelmingly sided with the interests of the rich. Taxes are relatively low, avoidance is rife and employers are courted more assiduously than workers. “Class war” is only ever invoked to describe the attitude of the have-nots, these resentful ingrates who criticise our beloved wealth creators, even though it has been waged consistently from the top down and every important worker’s right has been fought for, not willingly granted by employers. But of course that side of the war has been normalised; only the other side is deemed unreasonable.
These assumptions shape public opinion and therefore policy, which is why Miliband was too nervous to challenge Webb’s hostile use of “left-wing”. The longer they go unchallenged, the more they become absorbed into the bloodstream so that it becomes almost extremist to suggest otherwise: witness how even “liberal” has become a dirty word in US politics. If the Labour party cannot even admit that, however close to the centre it may be, it is left-wing then it is nothing.
UPDATE: I love this George Eaton blog for the New Statesman which uses survey stats to show that on many issues the public is at least as “socialist” as Miliband and sometimes moreso. Two days later, I think I underrated Miliband’s courage this week by focussing too much on the language he used. If his new policies continue to enrage so many conservative commentators then he must be doing something right.