Why big business is starting to take Labour seriously
Despite strong reservations, corporations and business groups are starting to engage with the party as it prepares for government
The strong blowback from business groups to Labour's radical workplace proposals set out at this year’s conference, mask a shift in attitude among businesses who have begun to engage seriously with the party since last year’s surprise general election result.
In a clear sign big business is waking up to the possibility of a Labour government, the likes of BP, Bombardier, Fujitsu, Google, Royal Mail and Visa are all present in Liverpool, as are the corporate lobbyists who have been noticeably absent in recent years.
There has also been an attempt to reach out to business from Labour.
Among the usual rhetoric promising to get tough on corporations, especially those who dodge their tax commitments, there has been a noticeable softening in tone from the shadow chancellor John McDonnell who told a packed conference that “there are millions of businesses out there which deserve our respect and we will always support them”.
Earlier this year, McDonnell received warm applause after his conciliatory speech at the British Chambers of Commerce annual conference in which he promised a Labour government would champion business by ensuring small companies get the long-term investment and start-up risk capital they need.
This month it was reported that the shadow chancellor, who previously pledged to foment “the overthrow of capitalism” and brandished Mao’s Little Red Book at George Osborne in the Commons chamber, had met with top executives of investment behemoth Goldman Sachs, the latest stop on a so-called “tea offensive” to woo the City.
Accusing the Tories of launching a “full-frontal attack on businesses large and small” in recent months, Shadow Business Minister Bill Esterson has also unveiled plans to woo small firms with a new outfit inspired by the United States’ Small Business Administration, which has helped US giants like Apple and Nike get off the ground.
The move “forms part of Labour’s bid to capitalise on a host of criticisms of business by prominent Conservative Eurosceptics and shake off its image as an anti-business party” says PoliticsHome.
Esterson told The House there had been a “sea change in the attitudes of the business community towards Labour” since last year’s snap election, declaring: “The Tories have, in the immortal words of Boris Johnson, told business to f*** off - which rather leaves a space open for us.”
“This is not to say that Labour and big business are now besties”, writes Matt Chorely in The Times, “but it is recognition that a Corbyn government is now a distinct possibility, and the professionalisation of the Labour machine in the past couple of years means there is now something to engage with”.
There are of course, still real fears about Labour’s more radical proposals, with The Sun claiming plans to take back control of swathes of industry have “triggered fears of an unprecedented exodus by business chiefs”.
Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said the policies would “hobble” the UK’s competitiveness on a global stage and be a “double whammy” on people’s pensions and savings, reports the Daily Telegraph.
However, “in a sign of how far the debate has moved in their direction”, Chorely notes that Fairbairn also said that “no one in business would disagree with the fundamental aims of these policies,” while also cautioning that "Labour must meet business halfway”.
A growing willlingess to engage from businesses is also indicative of the growing popularity of Labour’s policies with the general public.
A recent poll commissioned by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that 53% of Britons think the economy has become less fair over the past 10 years.
The poll also found strong support for key Labour pledges, such as workers on company boards, and a higher minimum wage for those on zero-hours contracts.
With the Conservatives intent on pursuing an ideologically driven economically destructive Brexit strategy, Labour now finds still itself in the unusual position of being able to claim it is the party best placed to defend businesses’ interests.