The Tories should fight the real Ed Miliband, not a Bolshevik straw man

Cameron and Osborne should be wary of defining socialism so broadly as to encompass any political resentment of a complacent corporate status quo.

In the executive lounge on the 23rd floor of the Manchester Hilton, George Osborne is addressing a throng of MPs, journalists and the corporate friends of the Conservative Party who almost outnumber delegates at their annual conference. The Chancellor is the guest of honour at a champagne reception hosted by the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers. As is customary, he gives a pep talk.

“We are winning the economic argument,” Osborne declares. It is item one in a three-point plan of how the Tories can secure a general election victory in 2015. Item two is “optimism”. The Conservatives have a vision of Britain’s future that embraces the challenges of global competition. This is in contrast to the sour pessimism of “the socialists”, who are retreating into discredited dogmas of state control.

Finally, there is “leadership”. In essence, David Cameron looks like a proper prime minister, while Ed Miliband is a drooling left-wing maniac. The Chancellor summates in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher. The theme for the next campaign, he declares, will be much the same as the one that carried the Iron Lady to a landslide victory in 1983: “Britain is on the right track. Don’t turn back now.”

For a politician feted as a Machiavellian schemer, Osborne is remarkably candid about his strategic calculations. One ministerial colleague compares him to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, a building well known for its mechanical exoskeleton. “With George, all the plumbing is on the outside.” Yet when it comes to the Chancellor’s cunning re-election plan, there is a tangle in the pipes. The Conservatives seem to think they can look futuristic by re-enacting a battle they won against Michael Foot 30 years ago.

The deeper problem for Tory strategists is that people can simultaneously blame the last Labour government for an economic mess and tire of Conservative claims to be clearing it up. So Cameron and Osborne will offer themselves as guardians of a fragile economy that Miliband would bludgeon with state sabotage. Senior Tories have feasted on the Labour leader’s speech to his own party conference to nourish the argument that he is a leftist delinquent. They see pledges to cap energy prices and force developers to surrender land if they won’t build houses on it as proof of intellectual juvenility – an immature distaste for capitalism that can be contrasted with Cameron’s grown-up approach. The popularity of Miliband’s ploys is dismissed as proof of Labour’s irresponsibility. Quick fixes will unravel under scrutiny, say Tory ministers. The public will not stay fooled for long.

That charge is woven together with the depiction of Ed Balls as a devotee of reckless spending to show Labour sliding into an­achronism, thinking government can solve every problem by diktat or debt. It is an account of the Miliband project that reassures the Conservative grass roots and flatters the polemical impulses of Tory-leaning media. That doesn’t make it true. The reality is that the shadow chancellor has committed Labour to levels of fiscal restraint that infuriate the left of his party. Within that framework, Miliband and his advisers rack their brains for ways to show that Labour could make a difference to people’s lives without simply turning on the Whitehall money taps.

The promise to freeze energy bills was not, as the Tories suppose, a panicky gesture to fill up some blank space in a policy prospectus that was coming under critical scrutiny. It was a carefully planned intervention to begin wresting control of the economic debate away from Osborne. Instead of asking who best manages the Budget, Labour wants voters to ask whose side the parties are really on.

On the day of Miliband’s speech, Conservative ministers leaped into the trap, apparently defending the rights of unloved utility companies to gouge their customers. They then spent their own conference denouncing the spectre of neo-Bolshevism, while privately fretting over the inadequacy of their response to soaring household bills.

Miliband’s manoeuvre may not achieve much more than temporary Tory disorientation. Labour could still end up looking as if it is wringing its hands on the sidelines of Osborne’s growing economy, without offering an alternative route to prosperity. Where the opposition leader thinks the Tories are vulnerable is that people don’t experience wealth as incremental rises in quarterly GDP data. Meanwhile, many of the conspicuous obstacles to a better quality of life – low wages, high prices, rubbish service – are functions of the private sector operating in badly regulated, failed markets. The solution may often be more competition, not state control, but it still takes government intervention to bring that about.

The Tories should be wary of defining socialism so broadly as to encompass any political resentment of a complacent corporate status quo. That is the reactionary impulse behind the Daily Mail’s hysterical depiction of Miliband as the carrier of congenital sedition inherited from his Marxist father. In his response to that charge, the Labour leader spelled out his political creed in terms that neither Ralph Miliband nor Michael Foot would readily have used. He wrote: “I want to make capitalism work for working people, not destroy it.”

Conservatives can try to argue that Miliband is doomed to fail in that ambition because he doesn’t love markets enough. They can insist that he is disqualified from even trying to fix capitalism because he served in a government that presided over the greatest financial crisis in living memory. What they shouldn’t do is deny that it is the right ambition for someone who wants to be prime minister or imagine that Miliband doesn’t mean what he says – 2015 will be unlike 1983. Cameron and Osborne should concentrate on fighting the opponent they have, instead of implausibly casting him as the enemy they want.

Conservative ministers listen to David Cameron speak at the party's conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

Getty
Show Hide image

4 ways to end freedom of movement (and try to dodge a hard Brexit)

A lot depends on the details. 

There are few subjects as explosive in Britain today as immigration. Labour is split between those who see anti-immigrant feeling as racism by stealth, and those who consider it a legitimate response to a changing labour market. The Tories, too, are divided between social conservatives worried about culture and communities, and economic liberals who believe everything must be done to preserve the single market.

If David Cameron hadn’t decided to hold an EU referendum, perhaps this debate would have rumbled on before either rolling towards an overwhelming question or being outstripped by events. But he did, and Brexit happened. 

Now, most political realists agree, there will have to be some kind of policy change on immigration. But apart from turning the lights out at border control and bracing ourselves for a hard Brexit, what are the options? Here are some of the ideas on the table:

1. A points-based system

This idea has been bandied around for years, with “points-based system” usually coming straight after “Australian”. The principle is simple enough – aspiring immigrants gain points depending on their education, age, fluency in English and work experience. Of course, the Australian immigration system also involves refusing to let desperate people on boats land, and instead leaving them to rot on islands like Nauru. However, the points-based system is also used in Canada, and *news klaxon* the UK already uses elements of a points-based system for immigration from outside the EU. 

If you’re Theresa May, the main argument against a points-based system is, apparently, that it lets in too many talented immigrants. If you’re the NHS, it can be an obstacle to hiring staff who are desperately needed. And if you’re a Brexit negotiator, since a points-based system effectively eliminates working-class EU immigrants, it is going to make your job very hard indeed.

2. Regional recruitment

In Canada, each province can set their own immigration policy, within certain boundaries, by nominating individuals for permanent residence. So British Columbia is willing to nominate healthcare professionals and post-graduate students who attend a provincial university. The Yukon, a remote province with just one city, nominates entrepreneurs.

But there’s the thing. Canada is the second biggest country in the world, and the population is half that of the UK. Breaking the rules takes effort. Chris Murray, a research fellow at the IPPR, said: “Everyone’s afraid it is a backdoor to London. You say you’re working in Cumbria, and you move straight down to London.”

3. An emergency brake

Back in 2014, the then-Prime Minister David Cameron floated the idea of an “emergency brake” on EU immigration. Under this system, which is based on existing EU law, free movement could continue but the Government would reserve the right to halt it in certain circumstances. As the FT noted: “The rules are supposed to deal with situations such as acts of war or volcanic eruptions, not the movement of fruit pickers from eastern Europe.”

After the volcanic eruption of Brexit, though, the IPPR now thinks an emergency brake could be Britain’s best bet. Murray told The Staggers: “It is quite targeted, and also it is much more likely to get support from European partners.” But remember, Cameron tried to negotiate an emergency brake before. And failed. 

4. Work permits

If you subscribe to the idea Brexit was about wages, and not xenophobia, you might be inclined to support a system of work permits. Under this system, freedom of movement could continue for students, families and retirees, but workers would have to obtain work permits. Home secretary Amber Rudd has said of the idea that it “has value”. 

The problem is, both Britain’s Brexiteers and the EU’s negotiators can count. Hand out work permits to everyone, and immigration levels remain high. Tighten the rules, and that’s the end of freedom of movement. It’s hard to see either side giving the Government such an easy way out.