Rightly or wrongly, profit and big business *are* dirty words to the electorate

Launching a triumphalist defence of the very entities the public increasingly feel they are being ripped off by may please your average strident Thatcherite, but it's unlikely to go down anywhere near as well outside of the conference hall.

David Cameron will today give his keynote speech to Tory party conference and, if reports are to be believed, will mount a strident defence of big business.

“It is businesses that get wages in people’s pockets, food on their tables, hope for their families and success for their country,” he will reportedly say.

What’s interesting is not so much the fact that the leader of the Conservative party is pro-business, which ought to be expected, but rather that he is going to give a speech that is so unashamedly pro-big business at a time when the popularity of large corporations is at rock bottom.

Last week I warned that, regardless of the pros and cons of the policy, David Cameron is in a tricky spot over Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze. The public back action on energy firms. Overwhelmingly, in fact. More than eight out of 10 UK consumers feel energy suppliers maximise profits at the expense of customers, with utilities coming behind only banking, gambling, local councils and government departments in terms of their sheer unpopularity with the electorate.

Whether or not a price freeze is the right solution to the problem of high energy prices, it’s hard to believe that a robust defence of big business – energy companies are just about as ‘big business’ as it gets – is going to win David Cameron many plaudits.

Indeed, when it comes to big business the centre ground has shifted decisively leftwards in recent years. A ComRes poll earlier this month found that 69 per cent wanted energy renationalised. Seventy per cent are against the sell-off of the Royal Mail, 53 per cent believe private sector involvement in the NHS undermines the health service and, as for the railways, a poll conducted last year found that over half the public supported full nationalisation.

With George Osborne referencing Marxism in his speech, the Daily Mail talking of a battle between ‘Socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ and, today, David Cameron ruminating on the theoretical benefits of corporate capitalism, it appears the Tories are more concerned with theory than practice. Rather than offering solutions to public concern about falling living standards, the Tories and the right more broadly are offering free-market dogma.

This potentially leaves Labour in a very nice position.

While there may indeed be a case for expounding the benefits of global capitalism in the university seminar – millions have been dragged out of poverty in the last 20 years in China and India by capitalist development; and even Karl Marx recognised capitalism’s potential for dynamism and innovation – for most people, this is abstract nonsense. What people want to know is whether they are going to have more money in their pocket next year, or less. They don’t care whether the big energy companies are ‘creating wealth’; they want to know whether their gas bill is going to go up by another 4 per cent this winter.

During conference season Ed Miliband has said something concrete on these issues. Thus far, the Tory party has not. This perhaps explains why, according to the latest YouGov poll, Labour now enjoys a 10 point lead.

Today’s speech by David Cameron may in fact represent a much bigger political development: it is now the right, rather than the left, which sees ideology as of greater importance than reality. After all, launching a triumphalist defence of the very entities the public increasingly feel they are being ripped off by may please your average Thatcherite, but it’s unlikely to go down anywhere near as well outside of the conference hall.

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