Leader: It is not “socialism” to say we are facing market failure on a grand scale

By refusing to accept that the market is not working for the majority, the Tories have put themselves at odds with the public.

For decades after the Thatcher revolution of the 1980s, politicians of the left and the right put their faith in a new economic paradigm as the guarantee of prosperity for the majority. Today, after the “Great Contraction” of 2008-2009, they can no longer do so with the same confidence. Economic growth in Britain has returned after three years of stagnation but it is forecast that real wages will not increase until 2015 and will not return to their pre-crash levels until 2023. A broken energy market, in which six companies control 98 per cent of supply, has left 4.5 million people in fuel poverty. Extortionate rents have forced millions to rely on housing benefit. By any measure, this is market failure on a grand scale.

The living standards crisis is a challenge for all political parties but most of all for the Conservatives, the natural defenders of capitalism. After Labour pledged to freeze gas and electricity prices until 2017 and to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020, David Cameron’s party had a chance to offer its own intelligent and imaginative solutions. But at its conference in Manchester, it retreated to its comfort zone. Aided by an ever more partisan right-wing press, speaker after speaker derided Mr Miliband as a “socialist” and a “Marxist”, as if concern at falling wages were comparable to a belief in world revolution.

In doing so, they failed to recognise that when Margaret Thatcher assailed her left-wing opponents in the 1980s, she did so in the confidence that her free-market policies retained popular support. Mr Cameron does not enjoy that luxury. Polls show that roughly two-thirds of voters support a 50p top income-tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities. If Mr Miliband is a socialist, so is much of the public.

The most unintentionally revealing moment of the conference came when George Osborne rebuked the Labour leader for suggesting that “the cost of living was somehow detached from the performance of the economy”. It was a remark that betrayed Mr Osborne’s failure to appreciate that the crisis is not merely cyclical (a problem exacerbated by his strategy of austerity), but structural. It was in 2003, long before the crash, that wages for 11 million earners began to stagnate.

Aside from a pledge to freeze fuel duty until 2015, the Tories had nothing significant to say in Manchester on the question of living standards. The most important announcements were the early introduction of the Help to Buy scheme and Mr Osborne’s commitment to achieve a Budget surplus by the end of the next parliament, both of which risk further depressing incomes. By inflating demand without addressing the fundamental problem of supply, Help to Buy will make housing less affordable, while Mr Osborne’s promise of a balanced Budget is likely to be met by imposing even greater cuts to benefits and services for the poorest. The Chancellor’s ideological fixation with the public finances ignores the greater crisis in voters’ finances.

On the fringes of the party, there is much good thinking. The Conservative campaign group Renewal, which aims to broaden the party’s appeal among northern, working-class and ethnic-minority voters, published a pledge card calling for the building of a million new homes over the course of the next parliament, a significant increase in the minimum wage, a “cost of living test” for all legislation and action against “rip-off companies”. However, there is as yet little sign that the Conservative leadership is prepared to embrace the kind of reformist, centrist agenda that secured Angela Merkel’s re-election in Germany.

The Tories’ error – compounded by the Prime Minister in his conference speech on Wednesday 2 October –has been to mistake the views of the strident right-wing press for those of the majority of the British public and to dismiss sensible calls for a more responsible capitalism as unreconstructed socialism.

George Osborne and Michael Gove listen to speeches at the Conservative conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.