Business overtures towards Labour may only flatter to deceive

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The Independent Online
Adair Turner, the CBI director-general, is balancing precariously on a wobbly high wire labelled political neutrality. Next week, when industrialists gather for their annual conference in Birmingham, politicians from both parties will be making a determined attempt to shake him off.

There are bound to be further destabilising manoeuvres by Mr Turner's own members, worried that their organisation is helping Tony Blair to look like Prime Minister-in-waiting. Mr Blair will be giving the first political speech by either main party at the conference.

It is hard to overstate the irritation of Conservative Cabinet ministers with the CBI for saying so publicly that the policy gap between the parties has narrowed, and for paying Labour the compliment of taking it so seriously. Business had better recognise its own self-interest and wake up before it's too late, one Cabinet minister was muttering darkly earlier this week. The pre-election campaign to persuade business to come back off the fence will begin in earnest in Birmingham.

Mr Turner believes that Labour has moved comfortingly closer to the Conservatives on a number of issues affecting business, including macroeconomic policy, possibly on taxation and certainly on investment incentives. He sees little serious difference of philosophy between the two parties on the micro-policies promoted by the Department of Trade and Industry or Michael Heseltine's competitiveness programme, where Labour and Tory rhetoric disguises the fact that half the time each side claims the other side is pinching its best ideas.

The clearest differences are on the minimum wage - which the CBI flatly opposes - and Labour's desire to abandon the Government's opt-out on the Social Chapter. Even there, the CBI objection is not so much to the Continental paraphernalia of works councils - multinational members already cope with that and much more - but the risk that the Social Chapter could be used to smuggle in other costlier burdens.

Set against that balanced appreciation of Labour policy, warts and all, Mr Adair has no choice but to reflect the views of many of his senior - and largely Tory - members, who do not trust the Labour Party's ability to deliver its industry-friendly promises. Nothing personal, Tony, but will you be able to keep to it under the stress and pressures of government?

Hence Mr Turner's careful balancing act. He says: "I don't think we have any choice but to state the facts of where we stand and our priorities, and then comment on the policies of the Government and the Labour opposition as they line up against our priorities."

Among businessmen with an eye on the post-election world, that is plain common sense. For politicians, such a clear statement of neutrality is one step away from joining the enemy.

Of course, it goes almost without saying that most senior managers do not vote Labour, have no intention of ever doing so and for the most part are instinctively Tory in their outlook. But real life is more complicated. Managers have to look to the interests of their businesses, a pressure the CBI itself reflected 14 years ago when it promised the government a bare-knuckle fight over policies that were cutting a swathe through manufacturing.

The fight was stopped before the first round. But throughout the 1980s the employers' organisation was sidelined. That was mainly a consequence of the Government's lack of interest in industry, until Mr Heseltine took over the DTI three years ago. In the 1980s, complaining captains of industry were told: "We've hammered the unions for you, what more do you want?"

CBI relations with the Government today are still quite tense. The building and construction industry chairmen will be waylaying Tory ministers speaking at the conference, Mr Heseltine and Ian Lang, his successor as President of the Board of Trade. Once the rock-solid base of Tory support, construction thinks it is being crucified by tight public spending and interest rate policies, and the slowness of the private finance initiative to get off the ground.

The Government's terrible muddle over Europe has also distanced it from that considerable body of senior industrialists who are highly committed Europeans. Figures such as Sir David Simon, chairman of BP, and Sir Patrick Sheehy, chairman of BAT, put a lot of their private time into working in Brussels to influence the European Union's policies for business. The CBI's message to the Government this week to stop messing about on Europe was deeply felt.

Labour has seen a few donations from business, and the Tories a fall, but that is a long way from a wholesale switch of allegiance. The Tories are the party that in the 1980s created the union-free conditions that allowed management to manage as it liked, and pay itself handsomely too. Business sympathy for Labour is skin deep, will continue to divide the employers up to the election, and will only last as long as Mr Blair looks like winning.