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17 July 2012

Labour’s new prawn cocktail offensive

Miliband's drive to recruit business people as party candidates has raised some eyebrows.

By George Eaton

In one of his most pointed interventions since leaving office, Tony Blair warned Labour MPs earlier this year that the party could not afford to “go into the next election without the support of a single CEO from a big company” as it did in 2010. Ed Miliband, who appeared with Blair at a party fundraiser last week, seems to have been listening.

At Labour’s annual business reception tonight (in the rarefied surroundings of the Chartered Accountants’ Hall in the City of London), Miliband will announce a new drive to recruit business people as parliamentary candidates. The Future Candidates Programme will offer mentoring for those who want to go from business into politics. According to the party, applicants do not need to be Labour Party members but “should share Labour values” and “be willing to join if selected to take part in the programme”.

The decision to waive the requirement that one be a Labour member has already caused some to raise a sceptical eyebrow. Labour List’s Mark Ferguson notes that “Joining a party to become a candidate isn’t necessarily the best way to get the best MPs and councillors…”.

Of the programme, Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, said:

Not only do we want more people setting up businesses, leading businesses and working in businesses, we want more people from the world of business in our ranks – from our councillors to our MPs. There are some already: like our MPs in the shadow Business team; all of whom have set up and run businesses or worked for business, but we need more.

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We know many people who go into business share our values: hard work, contributing to society, creating something from nothing, creating jobs, creating value. This is why we want to bolster the number of people from business in our ranks and from different walks of business life – from entrepreneurs to engineers, manufacturers to media marketers, architects to analysts, retailers to recruiters.

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In a similar spirit, Umunna used his summer reception at Adam Street last night to announce a new campaign to save the private members’ club, which is threatened with conversion into luxury flats. It was, he said, an important networking venue for business people and entrepreneurs.

What of the need to recruit more working class candidates, you may ask. Well, the two aims are not mutually exclusive – Labour can recruit working class business people – and Jon Trickett, the shadow cabinet office minister, recently launched a new programme to increase the number of working class candidates. All the same, some will note that that launch received considerably less promotion than today’s. Where was the reception for working class applicants? (Miliband’s appearance at the Durham miners’ gala notwithstanding). And if business people are not expected to be existing Labour members, why should anyone be? Those are some of the questions Miliband and co will need to answer.