Osborne's comparison of Miliband to Marx shows how wrong-footed the Tories have been

If the Labour leader is a Marxist, so are most of the public. They recognise that the market isn't working for the majority.

After initially portraying Ed Miliband as a "weak" leader with no policies, the Tories have taken to casting him as a dangerous socialist. In his speech to the Conservative conference, George Osborne compared him to Karl Marx, who similarly warned of a "race to the bottom" in Das Kapital. The Chancellor said:

I share none of the pessimism I saw from the Leader of the Opposition last week.

For him the global free market equates to a race to the bottom with the gains being shared among a smaller and smaller group of people.

That is essentially the argument Karl Marx made in Das Kapital.

It is what socialists have always believed.

But the irony is this:

It is socialism that always brings it about.

And it is the historic work of this Party to put that right.

Osborne's argument might be appreciated in a seminar room but it's hard to see it winning over the voters. After being told that he's a Marxist, they're likely to be pleasantly surprised at Miliband's moderation. As I noted last week, if the Labour leader is a socialist, so are most of the public. Around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities (putting them to the left of Miliband).

The other main problem with Osborne's riposte is that, unlike in previous decades, capitalism isn't working for the majority - and one doesn't need to be a Marxist to recognise as much. The link between higher growth and higher wages has been severed. Since 2003, 11 million earners have seen no rise in their real incomes. Growth may now have returned (with output expected to reach around 1% this quarter) but real wages are not forecast to increase until 2015 at the earliest and will not return to their pre-crash levels until 2023. The minimum wage is now worth no more than it was in 2004 and 4.8 million workers are paid less than the living wage.

But in his speech Osborne disregarded all of this and in doing so revealed his failure to grasp the extent of the crisis. He derided Miliband for suggesting that "the cost of living was somehow detached from the performance of the economy". But while the problem is partly cyclical (although the Chancellor, who has presided over the biggest fall in living standards on record, is hardly fit to lecture others), it is also structural. Wages did not rise with growth before the crisis and they will not rise with growth after it. In response, the government could introduce above-inflation increases in the minimum wage, or spread use of the living wage by making its payment a condition of public sector contracts, or creating living wage zones. But Osborne had nothing to say about any of this.

"We understand that there can be no recovery for all – if there is no recovery at all", he said, setting the bar as low as possible after three years of stagnation. But to Miliband's question of how to create a recovery for the many, rather than few, he offered only a shrug.

George Osborne delivers his speech to the Conservative conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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