February 24, 2018

New Vision. Old Legacy

New vision. Old legacy

The contest between David and Ed Milliband for the leadership of the British labour Party has opened up our recent social and political history. Their father, Ralph Milliband was one of Britain’s leading Marxist thinkers and academics. Their mother, Marion Kozak was a former member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and is still active in human rights. These parents, from  Polish Jewish ancestry, were survivors of the holocaust in which many of their family members died. Ralph and his own father fled to Britain in 1940, and Marion Kozac spent much of the war in hiding before she too came to the UK.. When they married,  he was already a celebrated intellectual and she had been his student.  Their two sons grew to be  prominent members of the Labour Party, and the younger one, Ed Milliband has become its new and youngest-ever leader.

The leadership contest was one of dignity and respect. And even though the media followed the men everywhere,  determined to expose dissent and animosity, they found little to expose. The solid affection between the brothers was as evident as the warmth of their commitment to each other. They spoke openly of the legacy of growing up in a close family of Jewish refugees.

Their father’s political ideas, however, have not enjoyed the same lasting influence. By the time of Ralph Milliband’s death in 1994, any remaining vestiges of his Marxist ideals were disappearing from British politics. They would be virtually eradicated over the next decade by Tony Blair’s reformulation of socialism into a pro-capitalist party of New Labour, which would absorb even his own sons.

The same seems true of the heritage of faith. Ed Milliband acknowledges respect for those believers, supports faith schools, and wants to draw Christians, Jews and Muslims into the public discourse. But he himself is a Jew who does not believe in God.

So his leader’s speech to Conference took many by surprise. For he began to use language we had not heard for two decades. He repudiated New Labour, denying its claims of a classless Britain where wealth ‘trickled down’ from the wealthy to the rest.  He exposed the myths of equality and opportunity, pointing to the levels of exploitation,  poverty and powerlessness. He called for justice for workers, insisted on the need for a living wage, and told us we have the wrong evaluation of worth. It is unacceptable, he said, to rapturous applause, that a banker can receive in a day what a care worker earns in a year.

People have heard echoes of his Marxist father. But those of us who know the prophets of his faith tradition can also hear echoes of Isaiah and Amos. Their cry against exploitation and injustice is taken up by the New Testament also. St James warns that the wages we fail to pay to workers will cry out against us. Jesus himself tells parables to drive home that God holds us responsible for how we serve the poor. The new Labour leader is drawing on a deeper legacy of faith than he realizes.

First published in Dagen

October 1 2010

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