After initially portraying Ed Miliband as a “weak” leader with no policies, the Tories have taken to casting him as a dangerous socialist. In his speech to the Conservative conference, George Osborne compared him to Karl Marx, who similarly warned of a “race to the bottom” in Das Kapital. The Chancellor said:
I share none of the pessimism I saw from the Leader of the Opposition last week.
For him the global free market equates to a race to the bottom with the gains being shared among a smaller and smaller group of people.
That is essentially the argument Karl Marx made in Das Kapital.
It is what socialists have always believed.
But the irony is this:
It is socialism that always brings it about.
And it is the historic work of this Party to put that right.
Osborne’s argument might be appreciated in a seminar room but it’s hard to see it winning over the voters. After being told that he’s a Marxist, they’re likely to be pleasantly surprised at Miliband’s moderation. As I noted last week, if the Labour leader is a socialist, so are most of the public. Around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities (putting them to the left of Miliband).
The other main problem with Osborne’s riposte is that, unlike in previous decades, capitalism isn’t working for the majority – and one doesn’t need to be a Marxist to recognise as much. The link between higher growth and higher wages has been severed. Since 2003, 11 million earners have seen no rise in their real incomes. Growth may now have returned (with output expected to reach around 1% this quarter) but real wages are not forecast to increase until 2015 at the earliest and will not return to their pre-crash levels until 2023. The minimum wage is now worth no more than it was in 2004 and 4.8 million workers are paid less than the living wage.
But in his speech Osborne disregarded all of this and in doing so revealed his failure to grasp the extent of the crisis. He derided Miliband for suggesting that “the cost of living was somehow detached from the performance of the economy“. But while the problem is partly cyclical (although the Chancellor, who has presided over the biggest fall in living standards on record, is hardly fit to lecture others), it is also structural. Wages did not rise with growth before the crisis and they will not rise with growth after it. In response, the government could introduce above-inflation increases in the minimum wage, or spread use of the living wage by making its payment a condition of public sector contracts, or creating living wage zones. But Osborne had nothing to say about any of this.
“We understand that there can be no recovery for all – if there is no recovery at all”, he said, setting the bar as low as possible after three years of stagnation. But to Miliband’s question of how to create a recovery for the many, rather than few, he offered only a shrug.