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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.