Cameron's hollow speech on "popular capitalism"

His speech was eloquent and historically rich but desperately short on specifics.

You can't fault David Cameron's chutzpah. His speech earlier today was an audacious bid to seize the territory of "responsible capitalism" or, as the Prime Minister called it, "popular capitalism" from Labour. True, during his brief flirtation with "Red Toryism" in 2009, Cameron spoke of the need for "markets with morality" but we've heard little since.

The political assertion at the heart of his speech was that only the Conservatives - those who "get the free market" - can build a better and fairer economy. In a well-crafted passage, he recalled the Conservative figures who had reformed capitalism in the public interest. It was Burke, he reminded us, who insisted on public accountability for the East India Company, and William Pitt who brought it under the control of government. It was Peel who repealed the Corn Laws and Disraeli who passed the Factory Act. "Social responsibility has been part of the Conservative mission from the start," he said. Standing in this tradition, Cameron promised to "change the way the free market works, not stop the free market from working."

But though eloquent and historically rich, Cameron's speech was also overly abstract and often contradictory. He damned Labour's "Faustian pact with the City", conveniently forgetting that himself and George Osborne were calling for more, not less, deregulation in 2007. He promised to deliver genuine "equality of opportunity" but ignored the need for greater equality of outcome, the former dependent on the latter.

With Vince Cable's report on executive pay still to come, it would be premature to judge Cameron's commitment to reform. But his belief that merely "empowering shareholders" will transform the system is hopelessly naive. Just 18 of the company remuneration policies put to a vote since Labour first gave investors a say 10 years ago have been defeated.

In the Q&A session following the speech, Cameron pointed to the government's £2,000 limit on cash bonuses at state-owned banks, ignoring the fact that the likes of Stephen Hester will still take millions in shares. He did, however, strongly hint that he supported moves to strip Fred Goodwin of his knighthood. Though officially impartial, Cameron said the forfeiture committee - the Whitehall body responsible for revoking honours - was "right to examine this issue". But while Goodwin, a convenient sacrifical lamb for the political class since the crisis began, is roundly denounced, the system he embodied continues as before.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.