Business still finds Labour unattractive

JUST five per cent of business leaders would vote Labour if there were an election tomorrow. So says a survey that suggests Tony Blair still has a mountain to climb to win hearts and minds in the business community. Sixty-three per cent would vote Conservative and six per cent Liberal Democrat.

According to a Mori poll conducted for Management Today magazine, 43 per cent of captains of industry say a Labour government would be detrimental to British business, while 42 per cent say it would make no difference.

The overwhelming reason for the anti-Blair stance among the directors of Top 500 companies was the fear of adverse changes to personal taxation. Half the 103 respondents cited this issue.

A string of other Labour bugbears continue to concern a small minority. Fifteen per cent were worried about an increase in corporate regulation; 15 per cent feared poor economic management; 12 per cent cited a revival in trade union power and 10 per cent feared corporate tax changes.

The vote of no-confidence in Mr Blair's New Labour comes as delegates converge on Brighton today for the party conference. Many will be demanding that Labour names a figure for its planned mimimum wage - a policy business largely opposes.

But some parts of Labour policy are attractive to business leaders: 21 per cent applauded its commitment to education and training; 20 per cent its commitment to Europe; and 16 per cent its commitment to an industrial policy.

Despite Mr Blair's claims that old-style Labour corporatism is dead, many directors continue to fear that a Labour government would interfere in the running of industry.

According to John Gardiner, chairman of the engineers, Laird Group: "Both Labour under Blair and the Conservatives say they understand the need to let business and industry get on with their jobs. But the Conservatives can't resist stepping in occasionally, and the fear is that Labour will be worse." He was also worried about the UK joining the Social Chapter.

Sir Colin Marshall, chairman of British Airways, voiced fears about the imposition of a minimum wage. He was also concerned that Labour would penalise dividends in a bid to encourage firms to reinvest more profits. That would "heap untold damage on to growth prospects", he said.

But Labour has some supporters in the boardroom. Sipko Huismans, chief executive of Courtaulds, the textiles firm, said he was "marginally more positive towards Labour than the Tories because of Labour's higher degree of commitment to Europe and the single currency. The 'Let's go back to the Empire' faction in the Conservative Party terrifies me."

Chris Haskins, chairman of Northern Foods, said Britain was tending towards stagnation and corruption after 16 years of Conservative rule. Labour would be good for the country. But he warned that Labour was naive in its attitude to business, and that while Blair was in danger of being too accommodating to business, the left wing of the party remained "excessively suspicious and hostile".

Charles Skinner, editor of Management Today, commented: "Despite the radical turnaround, Blair still has much to do to convince British businessmen that a Labour government would be beneficial for British industry."

Who would you have most confidence in as prime minister? (You may choose from any party.)

John Major 36%

Michael Heseltine 30%

Tony Blair 9%

Kenneth Clarke 3%

Paddy Ashdown 2%

Michael Portillo 2%

Margaret Thatcher 2%

Douglas Hurd 1%

Bryan Gould 1%

Chris Patten 1%

John Redwood 1%

None 7%

Don't know 6%

Source: Management Today

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