David Cameron may be losing out to Labour in appealing to business. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.