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.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.