As Andrew Neil noted on last night’s The Week, the word capitalism can no longer be used without an adjective prefixed to it. Responsible capitalism, fairer capitalism, better capitalism, moral capitalism and predatory capitalism are just a few of its personalities. Converting an adjective into convincing policy and tangible change was always going to be difficult. However Ed Miliband’s timely push for a different kind of capitalism is starting to be watered down by David Cameron’s subsumption of the same language.
The PM’s speech yesterday was criticised as being full of empty rhetoric about responsible capitalism. But it would be foolish of us to underestimate this as unintentional; David Cameron and his army of speechwriters did not forget to include a paragraph setting out specific ‘responsible’ policy. They will not have failed to realise that they will need policy to act upon if they are going to change capitalism. What he is doing is what we have seen them do to ‘tax-payer funded’ trade unions and the ‘benefit-scroungers’ of the welfare state: manipulating the notion of responsible capitalism to his advantage. The new capitalism that Labour has made the crux of their ideology is being made to look like an empty notion.
The government have clearly failed to take any substantial steps towards ‘responsible capitalism’ thus far. The Conservative-led government has cut corporation tax by 2%, scaled back and pushed back banking reform to 2019, failed to take any tough stance on capping high pay and watched while train fare increases far above inflation. “Let's judge you on your deeds and not your words” Ed Miliband rightly challenged David Cameron.
But speaking in London yesterday, David Cameron again failed to offer any tangible policies to show how he planned to work towards his responsible capitalism. Instead he set out an aim for a “socially responsible and genuinely popular capitalism. One in which the power of the market and the obligations of responsibility come together.” However the successful creation of a market that is both free and fair seems wholly unrealistic. To expect businesses to sacrifice profit in order to regulate their own ‘fairness’ is deluded. However deluded is something that we know Cameron is not; he has shown himself to be politically astute and carefully manipulative.
Tellingly, Chuka Umunna dismissed Cameron’s speech as “high on rhetoric and analysis but [with] a great hole in the middle.” But it is crucial that this is not just dismissed as a poor politics. Ben Jackson and Gregg McClymont’s pamphlet ‘Cameron Trap’ warns against such an underestimation of Labour’s adversaries. The Conservatives have been incredibly successful in framing the debate about austerity in their own terms, and leaving Labour to look internally fraught and self-contradicting.
So warning bells should have been ringing when Cameron presented responsible capitalism as a ‘nothing-idea’ of empty rhetoric. And, conveniently, a nothing-idea that’s completely compatible with free markets. What good luck.
This tactic will attract brief criticism for the government. However by using the same language as Labour, but using it in such a way that it means nothing, they will leave the opposition saying nothing. Labour should not underestimate their opponents, and must not let the notion of fair capitalism be made defunct by Conservative manipulation. They must be clear and vocal on the policy that their capitalism encompasses. Most importantly they must make it obvious that Cameron’s capitalism is not responsible, fair, better or moral.
This is a guest post by Georgia Hussey (@Georgia_Hussey), Fabian Society Publications Intern