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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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.