David Cameron may be losing out to Labour in appealing to business. Photo: Getty
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Could British business see the Labour party as its closest ally?

Business leaders gather today to focus on securing Britain’s place in Europe and raising living standards: is Labour the only party truly on their side?

Business leaders who are gathered at the CBI conference in London today are focusing on two key themes: securing the UK’s place in the EU, and raising living standards.

The latter is a key priority of the Labour party, as is clear from its “cost-of-living crisis” mantra, and the former is a subject that chimes the most with the Labour party’s approach to Europe, being the only major party not to support an in/out referendum.

So could Labour – not traditionally the party most associated with commercial interests – end up being the closest ally of British business?

The CBI, which represents over 190,000 businesses, has a slightly unusual focus at its annual conference this year, in that its key theme is the importance of helping people who have had their finances hit hard by the slow pace of Britain’s economic recovery.

Usually, the conference has more of a hard-headed business focus, but this year there is a clear narrative about the cost-of-living, involving calls to cut taxes for people in low income brackets and increase help for low-paid households, such as more free childcare.

Another key theme is the importance of the UK’s European Union membership, with the CBI President Mike Rake telling the conference this morning:

Do not be fooled: by withdrawing from Europe we do not somehow become more open to trade elsewhere; instead we turn inwards, going against the grain of an increasingly connected world.

David Cameron, addressing the conference this morning, highlighted the need to reform Europe – something the CBI welcomes – but had to reject claims from business leaders that his promise of an EU referendum in 2017 causes an uncertainty in business that could damage the UK economy.

He countered the idea that the prospect of a referendum could derail Britain’s recovery by saying we have secured more inward investment than the whole of the EU, but added that Britain's strategy cannot be to stay an EU member "come what may". 

This puts Ed Miliband, who will be speaking at the conference this afternoon, in a stronger position with British business than the Prime Minister is in. His is the only main political party that does not back an EU referendum.

Unlike Cameron – who only today is grappling with a group of eurosceptic backbenchers looking to rebel on a government motion to opt in to the European Arrest Warrant – Miliband is not hamstrung by anti-EU interests in his own party. He has the luxury of being able to make a positive case for Britain’s EU membership, and has also recently appointed Pat McFadden MP – who has held the BIS brief – shadow Europe minister, to make the business case for our EU membership.

The influential Labour MP and former cabinet minister Alan Johnson told me recently that his party should argue in favour of the EU, “much more than we have done”. If Labour does this, it will find a great many more friends in the business world.

But will Labour grasp this opportunity to be a friend of business?

Last week, the Labour candidate Stephen Kinnock wrote for the Staggers that Labour’s relationship with business is moving from “mutual suspicion to natural partnership”. He wrote of a “quiet revolution” transforming Labour’s dealings with the business world, although warned his party not to be put off by being branded “closet Marxists” every time it calls for more responsible capitalism.

But if the circumstances are all there for Labour to become the closest ally of British business, then there needs to be a figurehead to communicate this. Miliband has had a very difficult couple of weeks, with his leadership being called into question, and one of the key criticisms has been his failure to boost the profile of his shadow cabinet team members. For example, he gave them 700-word limits for their speeches at his party conference in autumn, which riled many of his team.

The shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna is praised by many Labourites for both smoothing his party’s relationship with big business and formulating attractive proposals for small businesses.

“Chuka’s always been quite good at this stuff,” one Labour strategist tells me. “But recently he’s been focusing more on ethnic minority issues and Ukip. I think he should get back to the key business arguments.”

All Umunna needs now is for Miliband to give him more airtime, along with other key figures in his team, both to rescue the party's waning appeal, and to capture the opportunity made clear today for businesses to look favourably upon the prospect of a Labour government.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Word of the week: Michellania


Each week The Staggers will pick a new word to describe our uncharted political and socioeconomic territory. 

After brash Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump paraded his family at the national convention, the word of the week is:

Michellania (n)

A speech made of words and phrases gathered from different sources, such as Michelle Obama speeches and Rick Astley lyrics.

Usage: 

"I listened hard, but all I heard was michellania."

"Can you really tell the difference between all this michellania?"

"This michellania - you couldn't make it up."

Articles to read if you're sick of michellania:

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