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 in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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