Blair's business jamboree becomes PR man's festival

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Half the delegates who attended Labour's much-hyped and heavily trailed conference in central London yesterday, to hear the party leadership set out its manifesto for business, were not businessmen at all, but public relations executives, trades unionists, diplomats, or Labour MPs and officials.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, opened the event by saying it was a "particular pleasure to see so many distinguished business people gathered at a Labour business conference". He was told, he added, that 92 of Britain's top 100 companies were represented.

The reality was a little different. Of the 365 delegates who paid pounds 470 a head to listen to Mr Blair and eight of his front-bench colleagues set out their vision for industry and the economy, 82 were PR men and women. Nineteen were diplomats, 29 were union representatives, academics or members of training and enterprise councils and 46 were Labour MPs, MEPs or party members.

An examination of the official attendance list suggests that less than a third of the companies which make up the FTSE-100 Index were represented, and only a handful of chief executives of large companies were billed as attending.

Of those, Gerry Robinson of Granada, Lord Blyth of Boots, Liam Strong of Sears and John Rose of Rolls-Royce, turned up only for the breakfast briefing, and one, Norman Askew of East Midlands Electricity, did not make it at all.

Disappointment at the calibre of those attending was summed up by one delegate, a public-relations executive, who said: "After all the advance billing, and given the Labour party line-up on display, the attendance is very poor, both in quantity and quality."

Those who did attend heard Mr Blair spell out five pledges to business: a promise that inflation would be kept low and tough rules imposed on spending and borrowing; a commitment to place Britain at the centre of Europe in a role that is outward-looking and anti-protectionist; better education standards and training for those in work; support for small businesses and help to tackle late payment; and a new partnership between government and business to revitalise Britain's infrastructure.

Mr Blair's speech and those of his Shadow Cabinet colleagues, including the deputy leader, John Prescott, shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown, trade and industry spokeswoman Margaret Beckett, were greeted with polite applause.

Many industry leaders claimed it was "more a political meeting" than a business gathering. "There are a lot of unanswered questions," Sean Murphy, managing director of Japanese bank Sanwa said. Alec Reed, chairman of Reed Personnel Services, said: "I would have been naive to expect [detail] and they would be naive to offer it."

According to some delegates, the muted response was explained by the fact that they had heard it all before. Mr Blair's speech, right down to the joke he used to warm up the audience, was a virtual carbon copy of the one he gave in July to the annual conference of the British Chambers of Commerce annual convention in Birmingham.

Opinion was split on the usefulness of the conference, with many delegates claiming they had walked away from the meeting none the wiser.

Those seeking detail on policies such as duty on fuel and windfall taxes were content; those seeking explanation of how Labour would control the financial instability of change of government or clarification over EMU membership and the level of a minimum wage were disappointed.

Andrea Cone-Farran, chairwoman of the Wire Station, an interactive business communications business, said that her experience of a national minimum wage in Australia had shown it to be futile. Any firm that employs unfair rates of pay, she said, tends to fail to retain staff and secure productivity.

"Natural forces rather than the formal impositions Labour flirts with tend to dictate pay and productivity," she said.

This view was echoed by Michael Moseling, senior director of project finance at Nikko (UK). Attempts by a Labour government to legislate on corporate governance issues such as those recommend-ed by Greenbury would be met with resistance and resentment, he said. Intervention and tinkering with corporate taxation would simply find investment being directed elsewhere.

The low-key mood of the conference was summed up by John Smith, the director of regulation for Anglian Water, who said: "Inevitably, we have reservations about some areas of policy, such as the windfall tax. [But] ... this time Labour has made much more effort to conduct a dialogue with business and therefore its policies reflect much more understanding of business."

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