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 Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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