Karl Marx is back. After a period of neglect during which no leader of a major party would have anything to do with him, it looks as if he will play a starring role in the next general election.
The credit for rescuing this once influential 19th Century thinker from oblivion belongs to Ed Miliband. That is the advantage of having an intellectual at the head of one of the two main political parties: unlike most people, Miliband is interested in ideas for their own sake.
It is true that during today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, it was David Cameron who said of Miliband: “I know he’d like to live in some kind of Marxist universe.” Cameron proceeded to announce the birth of “the new left-wing Labour party”.
We should not be misled by the word “new” in this. What delights Cameron, as a traditional-minded Englishman, is the rebirth of the old left-wing Labour party. Here, the Prime Minister thinks, is an opponent he can destroy at the polls.
But Miliband thinks he is winning too. That was part of the fascination of this contest: both men think they are in with a real chance of victory. On leaving the press gallery, I had the impression that it was Cameron who had brought Marxism into the exchanges, but on consulting my notes I find it was actually Miliband.
The Leader of the Opposition’s first question to the Prime Minister went as follows: “Is freezing energy prices a good idea or a communist plot?”
Cameron responded: “I’ll leave the communist plots to him.”
Miliband proceeded to accuse the Prime Minister of having “no idea what he thinks” about the policy of freezing energy prices. Tory MPs listened intently. They are not yet quite sure whether Miliband is onto an idea which might turn out to be popular.
The Leader of the Opposition is in no doubt that popularity is within his grasp. He said that Cameron “always stands up for the wrong people” – in this case, the energy companies rather than consumers. The Labour leader was waging class war, with Cameron cast as the friend of the wicked, exploitative capitalists, while Miliband stands up for the poor downtrodden proletariat.
Cameron accused Miliband of wanting “to fight some petty socialist campaign against successful big business”. The Prime Minister also accused Miliband of conducting a “purge” of Blairite shadow ministers which would delight trade unionists such as Len McCluskey.
But these exchanges were not bitter. Miliband even began by wishing Cameron a happy birthday. Cameron replied that his best birthday present was the continuance of Ed Balls as shadow chancellor.
At the end of Prime Minister’s Questions, Balls tried on a point of order to catch Cameron out in an inaccuracy about the marriage tax allowance. But Cameron brushed this off with the words: “I stand up for marriage even though he wants to run it down.” One fears many Labour people regard marriage as a contemptibly bourgeois institution.
The Prime Minister proceeded to mock Balls with the words: “He’s the great election winner for us.” But on today’s showing it is more likely that Marx will be the great election winner for the Tories.