Ed Balls' gaffe distracts from Labour's business tangle. Photo: BBC screengrab
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Labour's biggest own-goal on business isn't forgetting Bill Somebody's name

The Labour party has missed a good opportunity to win over British business, and it’s nothing to do with forgetting the names of its advocates.

“‘Bill Somebody’ is Labour’s policy!” cried David Cameron during PMQs yesterday, triumphantly mocking Ed Balls’ memory lapse regarding one of Labour’s business backers on Newsnight this week.

The shadow chancellor’s forgetful performance has exacerbated the criticism that Labour is unattractive to business, which was triggered by a flurry of recent stories about British business leaders dreading the idea of Prime Minister Ed Miliband.

Stefano Pessina, the Boots boss, recently accused the opposition of promoting “catastrophic” policies. His intervention led to a number of other high-profile British business figures voicing their fears, such as the former M&S head Stuart Rose disregarding Miliband as a “Seventies throwback”, and the Yo! Sushi founder Simon Woodroffe commenting that Labour’s approach “scares” him.
 

The shadow chancellor’s “Bill Somebody” gaffe. Video: YouTube

But Balls’ fluff is not a symbol of Labour being anti-business or anti-enterprise. It is merely a distraction from the fact that the party has not strongly capitalised on its great advantage over other parties regarding business: its stance against an EU referendum.

It was clear from all three main party leaders’ speeches to the CBI conference last year, for example, that Miliband has a unique selling point when it comes to wooing business leaders in Britain. He was the only one who could stand firmly against risking Britain’s European Union membership. The uncertainty Cameron has caused by promising a vote on the matter in 2017 has already caused significant jitters among UK business leaders and prospective investors.
 

The Prime Minister jokes about Balls’ forgetfulness during PMQs. Video: YouTube

The Labour party clarifying its stance against promising an EU referendum – and consequently cementing its friendlier attitude towards European migrants – was received well by a business community frustrated with party politics sacrificing investor confidence in Britain.

Miliband’s own-goal has been his failure to target the open goal that his party’s USP on the EU has provided to forge contacts with business leaders. Instead of nurturing relationships with a sector traditionally more sceptical about Labour policies, he has allowed the Tories to level the same old cries of “anti-enterprise” at his party – at a time when it has more potential than ever to win over the business community.

And the PM’s slurs have unfortunately caused Miliband’s party to revert to type and attack “billionaire” big business bosses. One Labour adviser insists it “won’t help” if the shadow cabinet tries to paint people like Pessina as the “arch Satan of capitalism” in their quest to avoid being stereotyped as anti-business. Just one symbol of the messy way Labour has approached its relationship with business is that its key business ally and donor, John Mills, is also a vocal advocate of an EU referendum.

Labour is in the unusual position of filling a “gap in the market” politically regarding business, as the only major party not to capitulate to Ukip on an EU referendum. It should see this as a new opportunity to build bridges rather than allowing its detractors to shrink the party back into its old business-bashing comfort zone.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.