History shows why the Tories should be wary of branding Labour as 'socialist'

The party abandoned the practice in 1959 when some voters believed 'Labour' and 'Socialist' were different parties.

Painting Ed Miliband as an unreconstructed socialist will get the Tory party nowhere warned legendary ad man and former Conservative party chairman Maurice Saatchi in the Mail on Sunday the other day.

According to Saatchi's analysis, we "went off socialism" in the 1980s because "it didn’t produce any money…it didn’t create wealth for its citizens." The pendulum duly swung the other way, with people embracing Thatcherite popular capitalism. "But now we have gone off that too," he says, because it "seems to produce too much worship of the golden calf. So now we don’t know what we like."

An astute surfer of the political zeitgeist, Saatchi’s warning is prescient when you consider that more than four out of five voters feel energy suppliers "maximise profits at the expense of customers".

Undeterred by such warnings, the Conservative frontbench can barely contain its glee at Ed Miliband disinterring the term 'socialism' to define his politics. Earlier this year at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron even referred to Miliband as a "champagne socialist", to predictable guffawing from his own side.

But this is not the first time the Tories have tried this tactic. Back in the 1950s they were at it, demonising socialism as part of a strategy dreamed up by one of Saatchi’s predecessors as party chairman, Lord Woolton.

A brilliant fundraiser and party organiser, Woolton increased Conservative membership from 1.2 million in 1947 to 2.1 million by June 1948 and was an early advocate of political rebranding, favouring renaming the Conservatives as the Union Party. The idea didn’t catch on, but as the great Conservative historian Robert Blake notes in his seminal work The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher:

…the next best thing to changing the name of one’s own party favourably is to change that of one’s opponents unfavourably. He [Woolton] declared henceforth in speech and writing Conservatives should never use the word 'Labour' with its suggestions of honest British toil, but always substitute 'Socialist' with its alien, doctrinaire overtones.

However, this audacious strategy contained a central flaw, one which David Cameron might do well to remember. As Blake points out:

This practice was dropped in 1959 when some voters were found who believed 'Labour' and 'Socialist' to be different parties.

Conservative delegates next to a spoof Ed Miliband-themed pub at the party's conference in Manchester last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.