It's unaccountable corporations, not socialism and the state, that the public loathe

In whipping itself into a frenzy over Miliband’s plan to freeze energy prices, the right has turned a blind eye to mounting revulsion over private firms.

Judging by certain Tory op-eds, you could be forgiven for thinking the Red Army has been given permission to water its horses in the River Thames. On the loose is a fanatical "demagogue [who] wants to fuel tensions and the politics of envy", according to City AM editor Allister Heath. Britain is on the "road to tyranny”, according to Iain Martin of the Telegraph.

Believe it or not, red revolution is not imminent, and Lenin remains safely encased in his mausoleum in Red Square. Over in Cuba, Raul Castro is pressing ahead with free-market reforms, and to my knowledge there have been no recent sightings of the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Mild-mannered Labour leader Ed Miliband has, however, pledged to freeze energy bills for 20 months should his party win the 2015 election. And these days, that’s apparently all it takes for a red scare.

At some point during the past 30 years, the mildest hint of social democracy became a symptom of innate Jacobinism. Fastened like glue to a dogma which dictates that one can never interfere in markets without catastrophically distorting them, the fact the country escaped financial catastrophe five years ago only because of massive state intervention has entirely passed the right by. A Labour leader has said the state must intervene to ensure that people can adequately heat their homes; therefore the country is on the road to serfdom. Such is the level of public debate in much of the Tory press.

In noisily whipping itself into a frenzy over Miliband’s plan to freeze energy prices, the right has turned a blind eye to mounting revulsion over private firms bloating and sating themselves on public money for the benefit of the few who are good at guessing on the stock exchange. Not only is public opinion increasingly at odds with socialism for the rich - in 2010/11, Network Rail, the private owner and operator of most of Britain’s rail infrastructure, was subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of £3.96bn - but voters are significantly more red than 'Red Ed' when it comes to state intervention in the economy.

In 2009, for example, data showed that 31 per cent strongly supported the renationalisation of electricity, gas, water, railways and telecommunications, with 36 per cent slightly supporting renationalisation. According to a ComRes poll taken earlier this month, 69 per cent wanted energy renationalised.

The trend is similar in other sectors of the economy too. Seventy per cent are against the sell-off of the Royal Mail, according to a recent Sunday Times poll, while 53 per cent believe private sector involvement in the NHS undermines the health service. As for the railways, a poll conducted last year found that over half the public supported full nationalisation, with even Conservative supporters preferring nationalisation to the status quo (Mail on Sunday stalwart Peter Hitchens wants the railways returned to public ownership, for crying out loud).

The politicians’ mantra of public bad, private good has become just that: an empty mantra, espoused by a political class that is increasingly at odds with the views of those they are supposed to represent.

The mistake would be to draw from this an unrealistic, romanticised image of old-style state ownership, which in reality could be just as unaccountable and inefficient as the very worst of the private sector. Despite what his detractors say, Ed Miliband is not advocating a return to state ownership, nor is he planning to introduce 1970s-style price controls; he is proposing a freeze on the price of energy lasting a mere 20 months. In other words, a very temporary brake on fat cats getting fatter while the elderly shiver in homes they can no longer afford to heat (in March of this year, five Centrica executives pocketed £16.4m).

But public enthusiasm for a reassertion of government control over essential services should give the left heart even if it would be a mistake to pretend that it is 1945 all over again. Public disaffection with the private ownership of large natural monopolies provides ample public space to promote other, more democratic models of ownership in which workers participate fully in the running of their enterprises and, just as importantly, have a say when it comes to divvying up the profits. Democratic socialism, I believe it is called.

Appropriately, it was Karl Marx who once wrote that the tradition of all dead generations "weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living". In this respect, the zeal for privatisation that reached a zenith in the 1980s has left an indelible impression on our political elite, many of whom came of age during Margaret Thatcher’s enthusiastic attempt at dismantling the post-war consensus. While the public has long since moved on, many conservative commentators remain marooned in the 1980s, instinctively horrified by a reality that sits uneasily with many of their most basic assumptions.

Today it isn’t corrupt bureaucrats or incompetent state managers that people are fed up of, but private sector fat cats who jack up the prices of things we cannot do without and then hold the country to ransom when anyone has the temerity to question it. No wonder Ed Miliband was so quick to reply in the affirmative when asked if he was "bringing back socialism": he might well be on to a vote winner. 

EDF, one of the "big six" energy companies that control 98% of the retail market. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide