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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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