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.

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“‘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 the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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