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

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage