Chris Blackhurst: Forget a prawn cocktail offensive – Labour's hysterical anti-big business stance is causing boardroom disquiet
Midweek View: It shows a level of ignorance and rank hypocrisy and ill-thought-through opportunism that is frightening
Last week, I met a FTSE 100 chief executive who said of Ed Miliband: "He's highly intelligent but economically flawed." I apologise for returning to the same subject again, but wherever I meet business leaders they're consumed by thoughts of the coming general election and the prospect of a Labour victory.
Partly, it's because they love talking politics; they devour gossip and opinion polls. In their jobs they get to meet the party leaders and form views of them.
More importantly, though, they fear what a Labour government might bring. So it was a visibly concerned senior business figure (not the chief executive referred to earlier) who said to me nervously that they'd been visited by expert pollsters who were predicting an outright Labour triumph.
The reasoning was that the core Labour vote was holding up in its heartland constituencies; a significant number of Tories would switch to the UK Independence Party; and Labour would mop up a likely fall in Lib Dem popularity. A resurgent economy would favour the Conservatives, but it might not be enough to counter the shift to Ukip. Significantly, in this scenario, little depended on the leader Mr Miliband's supposed lack of personal following.
As for talk that the electorate wants a repeat of the existing Coalition, that two parties in charge was better than one, that was a hard outcome to achieve in practice – voters would struggle to manufacture a result that saw no overall winner but another forced pact between the Tories and Lib Dems.
So, a Labour administration in May or June next year was looking probable. And what's causing disquiet in the boardrooms is the party's increasingly hysterical anti-big business stance. We've had Mr Miliband's sudden rounding on the energy companies at the Labour conference and promising a price freeze. That's been followed by repeated lashing out at banks. We've had the pledge, too, that Labour will restore the 50p top rate tax.
Then came the announcement that Labour would shake up competition policy, so that regulators would work with consumer groups to produce an annual market "health-check" and force legislators to act to plug failings. Except, as I said last week, this was the first that Which?, cited by Mr Miliband as one of the bodies involved in the yearly audit, had even heard about it. And Which? does not do party politics – it's a proudly independent, non-political organisation that stays well away from the Westminster argy-bargy and is not answerable to Downing Street.
Mr Miliband should have known that. Perhaps if he did, he simply did not care – anything to create a soundbite and score a point. But no sooner had I come from a fuming Which?, deeply resentful of being dragged into the pre-election scrimmage, than Labour was at it again. This time, frontbencher Andy Sawford wrote to every MP with a local Waitrose asking them to press the supermarket chain to change its loyalty scheme under which customers receive free cups of tea and coffee, and newspapers. According to Mr Sawford, the shadow Communities minister, the myWaitrose promotion was having a "stark effect" on small coffee shops and newsagents, and should be withdrawn "in the spirit of fair competition".
Mr Sawford, the MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire, was subsequently slapped down, but not in a convincing manner. Mr Sawford's move, said Chuka Umunna, the shadow Business Secretary, was "a bit of froth … It doesn't represent party policy, he is a constituency MP raising a local matter".
But Mr Sawford is not some loony maverick – he's part of Mr Miliband's ministerial team. Indeed, he's taken his cue from his leader, who has positioned himself as the champion of the little man having to combat predatory giants. In that context, taking on a major retail brand is fair game.
It shows a level of ignorance and rank hypocrisy and ill-thought-through opportunism that is frightening. I've always been aware of it ever since I rubbed shoulders with Labour in the Commons, where I did a stint as a Westminster correspondent.
The innate antipathy towards business was astonishing. Labour MPs regarded all forms of capitalism (forget any distinction between small and medium-sized firms, and corporate behemoths – anybody who was out to make a profit was bracketed the same) as corrupt, rapacious, not to be trusted, and underneath it all, Conservative. This was at a time, when, in theory, the hierarchy was engaged in a "prawn cocktail offensive", designed to woo the City, for cash and for votes.
I recall one backbencher who later became Business Secretary, saying he was convinced so and so was a crook because he'd once done a deal with someone who subsequently turned out to be a criminal.
They found conspiracy in any corporate activity, and woe betide anyone who happened to run a company, was successful, and a Tory donor – that was akin to being the devil incarnate. Their suspicion and loathing arose from their left-wing ideology, but also from sheer lack of knowledge, from never having worked in the private sector themselves.
Take Mr Sawford. He's a history graduate, a former local councillor, director of Connect Public Affairs advising councils and public bodies, and, immediately prior to becoming an MP, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, a London-based think-tank.
He's also sponsored by the Co-op, but clearly does not regard that organisation's supermarket operation in the same light as the aggressive, greedy Waitrose. Strange that, because where I live, a perfectly fine grocers was put out of business because of the arrival of a Co-op. They pleaded for it not to come, they asked customers to sign a petition, all to no avail.
The fact that Waitrose is part of John Lewis, itself mutually owned by its employees and akin to the Co-op in that regard, is lost, too, on Mr Sawford. Perhaps he was unaware what a senior Labour figure said in a major speech last year: "Co-operatives must be central to our future, to a better and more productive capitalism."
Mr Umunna went on to say: "The resilience of the co-operative model has been proved in the wake of the global economic downturn, with revenues up by 20 per cent. Co-operative models of business encourage the longer-term decision making we need. They focus on member value, not shareholder value."
Mr Sawford's party is not averse to its own membership offers. It also sells space at its conferences to those corporations who can afford to take a stand and get their message across. Access to Labour's bosses is available as well, at gala dinners – provided a tidy sum is paid. All these measures would not pass a Mr Sawford test of being "in the spirit of fair competition".
What, too, of the small coffee shops and newsagents he is determined to protect? They're struggling to combat far more than just Waitrose.
Presumably, Mr Sawford is to be found on a Saturday pacing up and down outside Costa, Nero, and WH Smith, brandishing placards calling for them to be boycotted. It's as if Mr Sawford has never been in the real world, is singularly unaware of how business and the markets work. Nevertheless, come next summer, he may well be sitting round the Cabinet table.
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