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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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while he would hold a free vote, party policy would be changed to oppose military action, an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote. Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, members made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbot and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet. There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.