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.