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10 November 2014updated 22 Jul 2021 5:56am

Five lessons from Ed Miliband’s pro-Europe speech to the CBI

What the Labour leader's address to business leaders tells us.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Labour’s USP is its anti-EU referendum stance

Aside from awkward questions by journalists in the audience, the beleaguered Labour leader gave an assured and well-received performance at the annual CBI conference this afternoon. The main reason behind his confidence in reaching out to business leaders is the fact that his is the only party not to back a referendum on our EU membership.

As I wrote this morning, Ed Miliband and his party should use this political “gap in the market” to persuade business leaders to look favourably on the prospect of a Labour government.

He told the CBI:

There are some people in our country who advocate exit from the EU. There are others who flirt with it, thinking they can do so without consequence. And perhaps with advantage to Britain.

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In my view both are equally dangerous. It is a betrayal of our national interest. It is a clear and present danger. A clear and present danger to businesses like yours that trade with Europe every single day.

You know that leaving the single market and stepping away from a trading block that allows us to work with the new economies, like Brazil, India and China, would be a disaster for our country.

It would risk billions of pounds in lost profits, risk millions of jobs and would make Britain weaker, not stronger, in the world. And giving succour to the argument that the real answer is leaving the EU, or contemplating it, simply drags us closer to the danger of exit.

Every nod and wink to those who want to leave sends a message to potential investors in our country that Britan is not open for business, that our country is a dangerous bet.

We have seen over the last couple of years that, contrary to what some might have claimed, trying to use exit as a threat has simply weakened Britain’s influence not strengthened it.

Making ever-more incoherent demands, ever-more isolated from our partners. All of this puts us on the conveyor belt towards exit with no idea how to get off.

I will not be part of it.

If I am Prime Minister I will never risk British businesses, British jobs, British prosperity by playing political games with our membership of the European Union.

Amid much prevaricating in the past over whether or not to agree to a future EU referendum, Labour has not spoken strongly enough about the UK’s EU membership. It now looks like this is changing, which will only help Miliband, who desperately needs a positive message, and to appeal to business interests.

Talking positively about immigration will benefit Labour – both with wooing business, and politically

Linked to his EU enthusiasm, Miliband should stick to the positive message on immigration he espoused today during his speech, rather than wobbling to Ukip territory as the Tories are doing.

Although conceding that globalisation, “including immigration”, can place “huge pressures” on our economy, as well as bringing great benefits, Miliband’s overriding message about migrants was a favourable one. He took a robust line on the matter:

I am not going to say we should close our borders. Because I don’t believe we should.

I am not going to play politics with our membership of the European Union. Because I don’t believe it makes Britain stronger or more confident in the world.

He also warned against pandering to “false solutions”, a clear hint at those both among his political opponents, and some in his own party, who want to attempt to out-Ukip Ukip on immigration.

Labour making the positive case for immigration will help on two counts:

First, because it draws a clear line between Labour and the Ukip-lite strategy the Tories are following in this area, as well as Ukip itself. This tells British business – overwhelmingly pro-immigration – that it is a positive and coherent alternative to the Tories’ mixed messages on their net migration “target”, as seen today.

Second, it will make Miliband appear to be a politician of principle, rather than one who, like the Prime Minister, is desperately abandoning his beliefs due to the rise and rise of Nigel Farage.

The PM’s approach to Europe will make life difficult for a Labour government

Ed Miliband warned the audience that the Conservatives’ attitude towards the EU and stubbornness in the face of their European allies will cost Britain in any attempted future renegotiation:

We have seen over the last couple of years that, contrary to what some might have claimed, trying to use exit as a threat has simply weakened Britain’s influence not strengthened it.

This may not just be a condemnation of David Cameron’s approach, but a fear voiced about his own future in potentially being the Prime Minister renegotiating Britain’s membership.

Miliband highlights the importance of Labour bringing “the necessary change in the way the European Union works”, which includes “longer transitional controls” when new states join the EU, protecting the UK’s benefits system, and achieving “long overdue reform” of the EU budget. If it is a Labour Prime Minister who ends up in the negotiating seat, the view of Britain in Brussels – said by one of my contacts there to be “embarrassing” – will put them severely on the backfoot, and Miliband knows this.

British business may already be envisaging him as Prime Minister

How Ed Miliband was received at the CBI’s conference today is telling. He was saved until last, out of the three party leaders, to speak – and it seemed the audience members were waiting most expectantly for his speech, perhaps because they regarded it as the most important. It was the same in the media room, with more journalists turning up to see his speech.

Also, once the Q+A following his speech began, there was clearly sympathy for Miliband among the crowd of mainly business delegates. A question from an ITV journalist about whether he acknowledges there is a crisis of confidence in his leadership caused the conference hall to boo and hiss, and another awkward question about whether Miliband ever wished “the other guy [his brother] had won” also received some furious mutterings among the surprised laughter.

It is telling that such a crowd, which – as far as I could tell from sitting in the hall –­ does not seem to be a particularly vocal one, showed such clear sympathy and respect for him.

But there is still a long way to go

This isn’t the seamless, rosy beginning of a Labour love-in with business. Far from it. Miliband had to answer claims that he was against aspiration and wealth creation because of certain tax proposals, including raising the top rate back up to 50p, and introducing a mansion tax.

Miliband insisted, “it is fair that those people pay a bit more,” and added, “I don’t believe that [the mansion tax] is inconsistent with encouraging the wealth creators in our country.”

But that his tax plans could be “punishing success” is an argument he will continue to come up against, especially considering many of his own London MPs oppose the mansion tax.

Also, the CBI did not accept his speech without reservations. Its director-general, John Cridland, commented:

Labour’s tendency to market intervention could deter investment. We believe open markets are the best way to deliver growth for all.

And Miliband himself admitted:

We won’t agree about everything if I am prime minister. But in everything I do there will be consistent leadership. I am not going to say it is OK to carry on as we are with the economy we have. Because I don’t believe it is.

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