One of Labour's most effective operators. Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Why Labour is playing for a draw as far as business is concerned

Labour's policies deserves a better relationship with business that it has. But its aggressive rhetoric has done it unnecessary harm.

On Monday Ed Miliband launched a brave if somewhat forlorn attempt to neutralise some of his more strident business critics in the run up to May 7th.  By making an appeal to pro-EU sentiment the centrepiece of his election manifesto for business, the Labour leader attempted to play up fears that a future Conservative government would preside over an EU exit, with all that would mean for the dampening of trade and investment.

As an electoral tactic, reinforced by a full page advertisement in the Financial Times, the move was only partially successful.  Grumbles quickly emerged from business leaders like Siemens UK boss Juergen Maier who had been quoted in Labour’s ad saying “The prospect of a referendum that may or may not happen, at a date yet to be decided upon, with a choice between two unknown options, is profoundly worrying for business leaders”. 

Individuals and their companies did not deny the quotes, which were all in the public domain.  But there was clear irritation at the apparent co-option of business voices in the Labour Party’s election campaign - particularly as the business leaders in question were given very little opportunity to prevent the inclusion of their quotes in such a partisan communication.

Frosty Relations

The communications between Ed Miliband and the corporate world have been somewhat testy ever since his infamous caricaturing of businesses as either predators or producers in a party conference speech in 2011.

And in a pre-election skirmish in January that was clearly calculated to undermine Miliband’s business credentials, the Daily Telegraph carried a critical interview with outspoken multi-billionaire Stefano Pessina, chairman of high street chemists Boots.  Pessina – an Italian citizen who pays his personal taxes in Monaco – was quoted saying that if the Labour Party acted in government as it speaks in opposition “it would be a catastrophe.”  

Some commentators believe that  Miliband came off better in the ensuing controversy, pointing out that it is not for foreign tax exiles to tell the British people how to vote.  However, it was not long before Miliband was forced to defend his personal approach to tax planning and indeed the tax practices of his small band of business supporters in the right wing press. 

Meanwhile, other British business leaders accused the Labour leader of stifling debate by making personal attacks on Pessina.

Unfortunately, in a Newsnight interview around the same time Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls struggled to recall the name a business supporter he had met earlier that day. 

It seems safe to say that the business community will not be coming to the rescue of Ed Miliband in time for May 7th, save for a few Labour-created peers in the House of Lords and individuals like Simon Franks, the philanthropist co-founder of on-line movie business LoveFilm, and Dale Vince of green energy firm Ecotricity.

It was all very different under New Labour.

The Cosy Years

Tony Blair’s biographer John Rentoul described how much the former Prime Minister was fascinated by entrepreneurs, identifying with their reforming instincts and propensity for risk taking.  Blair was also keen to attract alternative sources of party funding as New Labour sought to reduce its financial dependency on the unions. 

His team pursued business endorsements assiduously in the run up to the landslide victory in 1997.  Building on the party’s long term seduction of business leaders, dating back to John Smith’s ‘prawn cocktail offensives’ of the early nineties, Body Shop founder Anita Roddick was one obvious target for the New Labour team.  At that time she was one of only two business people recognisable to the general public, the other being of course Richard Branson.

Roddick had long been courted by the Liberal Democrats and took some convincing that it was worth her while switching sides in order to defeat the Conservatives.  But like many people in the mid-1990s she was despairing of the visibly fragmenting Conservative government of John Major.  She had felt particularly let down by Major’s lack of action on behalf of Ken Saro Wiwa, the Nigerian environmental and human rights activist executed by military dictator Sani Abacha in 1995.

Labour’s first TV broadcast of the meticulously executed 1997 campaign was a masterstroke. It focused on why big business was delighted by the prospect of Prime Minister Tony Blair.  Anita Roddick’s interview led the broadcast followed by comments from Terence Conran of Habitat and Chair of Granada TV Gerry Robinson. Labour never did get a plug from Branson, who restricted himself to a photo-op with Blair standing next to one of his red locomotives.

Of course it all ended in tears.   In his damning history of the rise and fall of New Labour, The End of the Party, Andrew Rawnsley catalogues how allegations of corporate influence started early for  Blair, with the appearance of a direct conflict of interest over relations with Labour donor Bernie Ecclestone and the protection of tobacco advertising in Formula One racing.  The story broke in 1998 but dated back to a personal meeting between Ecclestone and Blair just a few months after his election.

The perception of favouritism to business donors and lenders persisted throughout Blair’s time in office, reaching a low point with the ‘cash for honours’ scandal in 2006.  Despite receiving a knighthood, Anita Roddick gave up on Blair over the Iraq war

Too Late to Tango?

It is interesting to speculate whether the Blair and Brown governments would have played out differently if they had paid less attention to business leaders as sources of cash and instead paid more serious attention to supporting the growing movement for socially and environmentally responsible ‘stakeholder inclusive’ business practices.

Blair certainly had sufficient popular support - and the parliamentary majority - to effect progressive reforms to corporate governance and regulation, but he and his ministers had no interest in that particular form of modernisation. 

Perhaps a less timid company law review in the early years of New Labour might have tempered some of the excesses of ‘financial capitalism’ that caused the Great Recession of 2007-9.   However in all likelihood such reforms would not have had a material impact on the global banking madness that precipitated the financial meltdown.  

Although Gordon Brown was among its most hubristic cheerleaders, light financial regulation was not invented by New Labour.  And countries with more effective systems of corporate governance and regulation such as we see in northern Europe were not immune to the crash.  Casino banking can only be prevented by effective system-wide regulation as Brown has now accepted

So with the benefit of hindsight, how is Labour is to learn the lessons of the Blair/Brown years and the deeply troubled relations with big business they represented?

In my view it is unhelpful to create simplistic caricatures of business people.  The predator versus producer commentary was a divisive mistake and should have been withdrawn.  Businesses are social institutions, just like political movements - neither wholly virtuous nor completely venal.

That is why Labour must continuously emphasise principles of good corporate governance, regulation and transparency, creating real forums for effective policy making with business organisations both in opposition and in government.  Businesses need help navigating the rampant forces of globalisation, competition and social and environmental change through high level dialogue and engagement with political leaders.

The Labour party should also champion cross-party initiatives to support small business and entrepreneurship, which are the real drivers of a productive and competitive economy.  To his credit Chuka Umunna has been particularly effective in this regard. 

And finally political leaders should avoid like the plague any action that implies preferential treatment for any source of promised support whether that is from individual business leaders or any other special interests, and this should apply before, during and after their time as government ministers.

Ed Miliband and Chuka Umunna have provided solid evidence that this is the general approach they favour.  So it is a pity that their good work to date has been drowned out in the absence of more cordial and constructive relations with the business community.

But we can perhaps forgive the Labour Party for not focusing on pre-election celebrity endorsements this time around.  It would do them no good in government and is probably not what the public is looking for. 

David Wheeler is President and Vice-Chancellor of Cape Breton University in Canada.  He was an academic advisor to the British Labour Party between 1986 and 2001 and worked at The Body Shop International from 1991 to 1998.  He is writing here in a personal capacity.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.