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Beckett prepares to calm industry's fears

The new shadow trade minister believes she can allay worries about Labour's policies. She talked to Peter Rodgers
Margaret Beckett, the new shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, plans to campaign to allay the fears of industrialists that Labour's business-friendly new policies may not be delivered when the party is in power.

Speaking last night as her new job was confirmed, she said: "It is part of my role to seek to allay peoples' fears if we can, and to reassure them if we can, that we are all very mindful of the needs of wealth-creation and the vital importance of business and industry to our national well- being."

Mrs Beckett, who has had considerable experience of talking to business and the City as a member of the late John Smith's Treasury team before the last election, said she would do everything possible to "build up contacts and air and share concerns with industry". With Mr Smith, she was one of the principal members of the famous "prawn cocktail circuit" that tried to neutralise any opposition from the financial and business community to a Labour government.

On Wednesday, Sir Bryan Nicholson, president of the Confederation of British Industry, repeated his previous welcome of the big shift in Labour policy towards a more business-friendly outlook. The CBI also gave a welcome to Labour's macro-economic policy. But Sir Bryan said that there were still fears among industrialists that once in power a Labour government would not be able to deliver on its new policies.

Mrs Beckett called on industrialists to be open-minded this time round. She said: "Before the last general election a great many things we were saying were not at all dissimilar to what the CBI was saying, yet Sir John Banham (then director general of the CBI) went out of his way to slag off the Labour Party and was saying the CBI wouldn't have anything to do with it."

Mrs Beckett, who declined to comment on specific policies after only minutes in her new position, said: "I always thought it quite astonishing and very dismaying that government ministers would really tear into business representatives for their views and it was always swallowed."

She warned industrialists that it would get still worse under a renewed Tory mandate. "Were the Conservatives to be re-elected for a fifth term they really would believe that they could do anything they liked and wouldn't listen to anybody at all about anything - and that would include people in industry and commerce."

Mrs Beckett, who is moving from the health portfolio, said she had always found industrial policy fascinating. Her first job had been as an engineering apprentice at Metropolitan Vickers in Trafford Park, Manchester - a company later taken over by AEI, which was, in turn, absorbed in the present GEC. She became a metallurgist.

Her first Labour Party staff job was at headquarters working on industrial policy. Ever since then she had taken an interest in industry. "I have always had a constituency (Derby South) with very strong manufacturing industry interests. I have always tried to create and preserve good relations between the party and industrialists."

She added jokingly: "Some of my best friends are industrialists, as they say", and said she had played a minor role in setting up the Labour Industry Forum, which has been working with business people to develop detailed policies for the party. But Mrs Beckett thought it impolitic to name the industrialists in the forum with whom she was friends.

Under her predecessor, Dr Jack Cunningham, the Labour industry team has worked at a wide range of policies on issues from competition policy to regulation and the utilities, but it has been overshadowed on the executive pay row by Gordon Brown, the Opposition Treasury spokesman.

Mr Brown has, at times, appeared to make all the running on the "fat cat" issue, sidelineing Dr Cunningham, though pay rises are mainly to do with corporate governance and other issues that belong to the trade side.

Mrs Beckett refused to be drawn into how she would share out these high- profile issues - which attract a lot of personal publicity - with Mr Brown, but dropped hints that she would become more involved.

She said that she and Mr Brown would work together on the issues.

"Gordon has very effectively used the issue of what is happening in the utilities to highlight the issue of fairness - and fairness is the key to our taxation policies."

Mrs Beckett added: "These things change and evolve." She looked forward to working with Mr Brown. "What we will do is to try to divide up the work and the exposure in ways that are most effective for the policies."

Mrs Beckett did not want to lay down any rules about who did what, and believed in working it out as it went along.

She believed she would be fighting a government that had to a considerable extent run out of ideas and steam, which explained why some of the newer developments in policy towards business were also ideas prominent in Labour thinking.

Observers believe that areas of partial overlap - and possible continuity between a Labour and Tory government - include policies for small business and proposals such as the Business Links network developed by Michael Heseltine, which Labour is more likely to develop and expand than cut back.

Asked whether she believed there were areas of possible continuity in policy towards business after a change of government, Mrs Beckett said: "One of the sad things about the policy debate today is that the attitude of the present government is so utterly infantile - it will never accept that there can be any common ground or common sense."

She was enthusiastic about taking charge of science and technology - a new part of the industry portfolio - and also declared her enthusiasm for consumer issues. "I think that has a great deal of importance that is often overlooked. We have a very good team in that area with a keen eye for what is in the interests of consumers. For a long time in the public and private sectors we haven't looked as fully at the interests of consumers as we should have done."

When she moved to the health portfolio, her predecessor left her 36 crates of material to digest. She will shortly meet Dr Cunningham for the trade and industry handover.