David Cameron delivered an interesting speech yesterday, and the credit for it lies squarely with Ed Miliband. The subject of the speech was “popular capitalism”. It is not a phrase you will find in the coalition agreement. It was, apparently, not on the minds of Lib Dem negotiators as they shredded campaign policies and shared out ministerial positions. It has never been a feature of Osbornomics. Even orange-booker Nick Clegg took a brief break from failing to reform the constitution to become a crusader for fairer capitalism. A government that has spent its time in office trying to find an excuse to cut the 50p tax band for the super rich and allowing the fast food industry to shape public health policy was now trying to look the other way.
Cameron and Clegg have a dilemma. While oppositions can talk but not act, governments have the opposite problem. Words must be followed by action. People will be watching to see what the Deputy PM’s “John Lewis economy” amounts to in practice. Whilst the cooperative sector currently amounts to only 1 per cent of the economy, what is their strategy to increase that? Likewise, people could be forgiven for wondering if David Cameron has the guts to “be tough” with the very same people who have funded him for so long.
Labour faces its own dilemma. It is notoriously difficult for oppositions to set the terms of debate, but on this — as with phone hacking — Ed Miliband has seized the initiative. Now the coalition is trying to buy up its political real estate, does it stick and shout louder or does it twist and push the agenda? The former will prove futile: few opposition parties can overwhelm the media might of Whitehall. Neither can the Labour Party bank on the support of a public sceptical of the coalition’s desire for real change in British capitalism. The pro forma indignation about banker’s bonuses will no longer cut through.
The only option is to move the debate on and call David Cameron’s bluff. I’ve argued in my book that the Big Society is Labour’s for the taking. After all, how can you preach about the fruits that come from empowering people in the public sector yet have no designs for empowerment in the private sector? If the prize is a society where people feel a greater responsibility to one another, how can we not have a message to the companies who seemingly show no sense of responsibility towards us? Yes, limit Stephen Hester’s bonus, but it won’t make much difference to the people that clean his office.
The political calling for the left in the age of austerity must be to fill the gap between the Big Society and the Big Economy. We can change the relationship between the boardroom and the stockroom forever without spending a penny of taxpayers’ money. Firms should share power and profits with the people who work for them. We should point to Germany where employees have a seat at the table in company boardrooms (including remuneration committees), and to France where employees share in the profits of large firms. We need to be more forthright about Big Internet that hordes and sells access to our personal data, Big Food that sells us repackaged cholesterol and Big Booze that retails cheaper than bottled water. Ed Miliband’s comments this morning about “rip-off Britain” are a welcome start to a distinctive narrative that will shape Labour’s message from now until 2015.
David Lammy is the Labour MP for Tottenham and author of “Out of the Ashes: Britain after the riots”