David Cameron launches the Conservative Party's European and local election campaign durng a speech at JCB World Logistics Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tories dismiss Labour as anti-business. Cameron must be wary of seeming anti-everyone else

The moment when Cameron could bring himself to worry aloud about inequality has passed.

Ed Miliband’s distaste for British capitalism is a source of frequent comfort to the Tories. When the Labour leader talks about intervening in rogue markets, David Cameron hears the crackle of flames consuming the opposition’s economic credibility. He believes that Labour’s litany of private-sector targets (banks, payday lenders, letting agents, energy companies), combined with the intention to tax mansions and squeeze top salaries, creates the impression of a party that hates profit and wealth.

The Tories think Miliband’s success in naming economic villains will be cancelled out by his failure to describe a plan for prosperity. Labour’s warning that the recovery will not ease the crisis in living standards is dismissed as another iffy jeremiad, to be filed alongside a triple-dip recession and 1930s-style unemployment as things the opposition called wrong.

Most Labour MPs are confident that their leader has diagnosed Britain’s economic malaise correctly; many worry that not enough voters are looking to him as a purveyor of solutions. In their constituencies they find little excitement about the prospect of a Miliband government. There is no enthusiasm for another term under Cameron but inertia favours incumbency.

Miliband has plenty of academic support for his argument that unfair distribution of wealth is the defining issue of the age. London’s left-wing intelligentsia is skim-reading Capital in the 21st Century, a much-hyped study of the deleterious effects of inequality by the French economist Thomas Piketty. Labour also takes heart from a new egalitarian strain in US politics, in evidence from Bill de Blasio’s victory in last year’s New York mayoral contest with a populist left campaign targeting the city’s plutocrats and Barack Obama’s warnings that America’s middle class fears perpetual decline.

Gratifying though it may be for Labour to feel part of an intellectual trend, the association has limited currency in a campaign. More useful would be support from prominent British capitalists. It is not too far-fetched to imagine some enlightened entrepreneur making the case for decent wages, secure employment rights and paying taxes. Miliband’s allies insist that such a constituency exists but is reluctant, for now, to look partisan by sharing a platform with an opposition leader.

George Osborne didn’t seem to have the same difficulty persuading business figures to sign public letters backing his tax policies before the last election. Before next May, the Chancellor will no doubt arrange a blue-chip chorus warning against the perils of a Labour government.

That needn’t be a knockout blow if Miliband reinforces suspicion of the Tories as corporate ciphers. Labour’s counterattack to the anti-business accusation is to portray Cameron and Osborne as anti-everyone else, always on the side of rapacious greed.

In the current debate over Pfizer’s take-over bid for AstraZeneca, for example, Mili­band wants Cameron to be seen as a “cheerleader” for a US predator as it circles an indigenous national industry. Labour is urging a change in the law to broaden the grounds on which ministers can intervene if they suspect that a deal is not in the national interest. That sounds sinister only to someone who thinks politicians are always a contaminant in impeccable markets – a view that has some currency among Conservative MPs. Yet Downing Street recognises that people other than Trots feel protective towards Britain’s home-grown pharmaceutical sector. (The Daily Mail is hostile to the takeover; Vince Cable has positioned the Lib Dems close to Labour.)

Osborne’s riposte to Miliband’s stance on the AstraZeneca bid includes a swipe at the last Labour government, which, “time after again when there were takeovers did nothing to protect Britain’s national economic interest”. So he recognises that deference to global corporations is out of fashion, although the Chancellor is also keen that the Pfizer bid be celebrated as a vote of confidence in his business-friendly tax regime.

Cameron was once more alert to the downside of globalisation. In 2009, he complained about an economic model in which, “Too often, the winners have taken it all.” As recently as January 2012, in a speech on “moral capitalism”, he declared himself determined to “stand up to big business” and fix failed markets. The Prime Minister’s argument then was that Tories were better placed than Labour to reform the system without breaking it, because they understand how business actually works.

Cameron’s interest in the ethics of wealth distribution coincided with a fear of perpetual stagnation. It vanished once the recovery came into view. One former adviser is scathing: “They were shitting themselves that growth wasn’t coming back . . . They didn’t really engage with the arguments.”

That is a product of social segregation as much as intellectual complacency. Cameron’s clique does not include anyone who will urge him to tackle fat-cattery and his campaign coffers are filled by people who insist that he doesn’t. Miliband has the reverse problem. There is no one in his entourage who has built a business and plenty who have read books on business gone bad.

The Prime Minister is right to see that as a weakness but wrong to think it can be exploited by declaring Miliband’s arguments worthless. The smarter move would be to acknowledge that Britain’s economy is skewed to favour the few and to revisit the claim that wayward capitalists will take regulatory medicine more readily from their Conservative friends; that Miliband lacks the clout in business circles to deliver the necessary change. Yet the moment when Cameron could bring himself to worry aloud about inequality has passed. That is a source of frequent comfort to Labour.

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

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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