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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war