For years after Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader, David Cameron dismissed him as a “weak” figure with “nothing to say”. Not anymore. So dominated was his speech to the Conservative conference by Miliband’s address last week that it felt, as Labour figures are quipping, like “a right of reply to the Leader of the Opposition.”
In a speech that contained no new policy announcements, Cameron mentioned nearly as many Labour proposals as Tory ones. Rather than loftily ignoring Miliband’s ideas, he sought to rebut them. “We’ve heard Labour’s ideas to help with the cost of living. Taxes on banks they want to spend ten times over. Promising free childcare – then saying that actually, you’ve got to pay for it. An energy promise they admitted 24 hours later they might not be able to keep. It’s all sticking plasters and quick fixes… cobbled together for the TV cameras. Red Ed and his Blue Peter economy.”
His dismissal of Miliband’s agenda would have been more convincing had he offered anything in its place. With the return of growth after three years of stagnation, Cameron is confident that he has a good story to tell on the economy. In a well-delivered passage, he mocked Ed Balls’s flat-lining gestures and quipped: “Well, I’ve got a gesture of my own for Ed Balls and don’t worry – it’s not a rude one. Jobs are up, construction is up, manufacturing is up, inward investment, retail sales, homebuilding, business confidence, consumer confidence – all these things are up.”
But there was one notable absence from that list: wages. Growth may finally have returned but incomes are not expected to rise until 2015 and and will not return to their pre-crash levels until 2023. The minimum wage is worth no more than it was in 2004 and 4.8 million workers are paid less than the living wage. Cameron offered a passionate defence of the free market but to the question of the moment – what happens when the market fails? – he had no answer. Pre-conference rumours that the Tories would commit to a major increase in the minimum wage, or to spreading use of the living wage, came to naught.
The two most important announcements of the conference were on the early introduction of the Help To Buy scheme and on the Tories’ 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 even more unaffordable, while the promise of a balanced budget is likely to be met through even greatest cuts to benefits and services for the poorest. Cameron and Osborne’s ideological fixation with the public finances ignores the greater crisis in voters’ finances.
Cameron’s bet is that voters will reject Labour’s ideas as a mixture of cheap gimmickry and dangerous leftism but at a time when the market is failing to deliver for the majority, the danger for the Tories is that they may not. Channeling the spirit of Margaret Thatcher, he raged against “1970s-style socialism“. But when Thatcher assailed her left-wing opponents in 1980s she did so in the confidence that her free-market policies were delivering rising living standards and retained popular support. Cameron does not enjoy that luxury. Polls show that 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. If Miliband is a socialist, so are most of the public.
By choosing to respond directly to Labour, Cameron has accepted that there is an alternative. The quiet fear in the hall was that the voters may quite like it.