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Why Labour hopes its policies will start a fight with the business community

The Labour leadership hopes that it has recovered the art of picking fights.

By Patrick Maguire

Should Labour be worried by the reaction from the business community to John McDonnell’s conference speech? Both the Confederation of British Industry and the Federation of Small Businesses have criticised the shadow chancellor’s bold policy offer of a 32-hour working week, £10 minimum wage, mandatory share ownership for employees of big firms, and a £6bn programme of free personal care for the elderly, with the CBI complaining that it amounts to declaring Britain closed for business. 

Add to that an unsurprising chorus of criticism from Tory MPs — who say the plans amount to a reckless splurge — and one could be forgiven for assuming Labour are losing the air war. 

But those involved in drawing up some of the policies say the public criticism is in fact a good thing. The Labour leadership has long welcomed — or, indeed, invited — public rows over its policy offer. Their thinking is that confrontations with their opponents, be they the Tories or the business lobby, are a better way of airing and winning support for new policy, and defining the enemy, than a more conventional media strategy. 

It was precisely this populist approach that paid dividends over the Easter recess in 2017 — just before Theresa May called the snap election — when Corbyn regained momentum with a blitz of provocative media interventions on policies like free school meals for all primary school pupils, funded by ending the VAT-free status of private schools, and a cap on executive pay. That week presaged the combative — and successful — campaign they would run just months later. 

Two years on, however, there is a feeling that Corbyn’s operation has lost its knack for the art of picking fights over its policy offer. “It is by far the best way to land this stuff,” reflects one shadow cabinet adviser involved in drawing up part of McDonnell’s pitch. As a Brexit election approaches, leaning into criticism of its policies might be one of the only ways for Labour to fight it on anything like its own terms.

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