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

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.