Why Vince Cable is no Marxist

The Business Secretary’s arguments owe more to Adam Smith than they do to Karl Marx.

The Lib Dem conference has so far produced few memorable speeches, but Vince Cable's widely trailed address should prove an exception. He will warn that the current system "takes no prisoners and kills competition where it can" and that markets are "often irrational and rigged", and he will promise to shine a "harsh light into the murky world of corporate behaviour".

Inevitably, the free-market right has interpreted Cable's speech as an attack not on unfettered markets, but on capitalism tout court. Richard Lambert of the CBI criticised Cable's "odd" and "emotional" language, and Lambert's predecessor Digby Jones accused the Business Secretary of "rabble-rousing".

Yet Cable's arguments owe more to Adam Smith than they do to Karl Marx. His words reflect the centuries-old awareness that the free market is not synonymous with competition, or with the public interest.

As Smith, that great apostle of capitalism, argued:

The interest of the dealers, in any particular branch and trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public.

Which now looks like a rather prescient comment on the British banking sector. Elsewhere, on the self-interested nature of industry, he pointed out:

Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent in regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.

What Cable's critics are too intellectually barren to acknowledge is that there are alternatives to the finance-dominated, Anglo-Saxon model beyond that of state socialism. The Swedes do capitalism, the Americans do capitalism, the French do capitalism, even the Chinese do capitalism. But they all do it in very different ways.

When Richard Lambert sneers that it "will be interesting to hear [Cable's] ideas for an alternative", he fails to acknowledge this reality. But at least some of our political class may be about to.

UPDATE: Cable left in his attack on capitalism, but added a reference to Adam Smith that wasn't in the text last night. Perhaps the Business Secretary read The Staggers over breakfast?

His words: "Capitalism takes no prisoners and kills competition where it can, as Adam Smith explained over 200 years ago."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.