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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era