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Business Comment

Mark Leftly: Labour’s young pretender waits in the wings... at Milton Keynes


Westminster Outlook: Only a political party could hold “Warwick 3” an hour’s drive away in Milton Keynes – and Labour’s top brass are working hard to ensure that the trilogy is concluded on a more peaceful note than the previous two instalments.

Since 2004, Labour has held national policy forums with affiliated unions at this stage of the Parliamentary cycle to bash out agreements that will help form the general election manifesto. The previous two took place at Warwick University.

This was a venue to stir union passions. Known in the 60s and 70s as “Red Warwick” and noted for its student sit-ins, the university is today a commercial powerhouse, with Jaguar Land Rover ploughing £50m into an automotive campus. Tony Blair praised the university’s “entrepreneurial zeal” when he was prime minister, which made it an appropriate place for unions to make trouble as they tried to steer Labour back to the left. In 2004, Mr Blair was forced into a number of concessions in exchange for continued union support, including improved rights for temporary workers.

Perhaps the party hopes that moving the July conference around 40 miles to the south-east will calm tensions, avoiding the furious 3am deals and rows on the conference floor that blighted Warwick.

The political focus this week has been on Nick Clegg’s position as Liberal Democrat leader, yet Ed Miliband’s grip on his party is no less fragile. In the wake of Labour’s unimpressive council and Euro election campaigns, a shadow minister told The Independent on Sunday  that Mr Miliband “has to go”.

But the Labour leader has been canny as he attempts to re-cast Warwick 3 as MK 1. Mr Miliband and the shadow cabinet have held private meetings with union leaders to avoid the embarrassing and counter-productive rows of the past, ensuring broad policy agreements are in place by July.

A source at Unite, Britain’s biggest union with more than 1.4m members, says: “Labour wants to square the unions.”

Business should be watching these developments closely, as already there are drip feeds of City-relevant passages of the manifesto.

Chuka Umunna, the fiercely ambitious shadow business secretary, has impressed union chiefs by campaigning for an expanded national interest test to help block foreign takeovers of what are deemed to be industries of strategic national importance. Most obviously, this would include tests to protect Britain’s science base following US Viagra-maker Pfizer’s failed £69bn tilt at AstraZeneca. 

Disappointed by the 35-year-old Streatham MP’s slightly slow response to the Royal Mail privatisation debacle last year, which saw the five-century-old postal service grossly undervalued on flotation, Mr Umunna seemed galvanised by the bid.

AsatraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot might be celebrating this week, as Pfizer admitted defeat and withdrew its £55 a share offer, but Mr Umunna is the real winner.

According to an unusual poll last weekend when people were shown videos of potential Labour leaders, Mr Umunna held an approval rating over Mr Miliband of 30 per cent. He also beat his potential rivals on being “normal” and “in touch”.

By being so vocal over the Pfizer deal and pushing for amendments in next week’s Queen’s Speech to toughen takeover rules, Mr Umunna is illustrating those qualities.

He has also confirmed that the manifesto will include a pledge to strengthen Government powers to intervene in foreign takeovers. Union members most certainly will not be challenging that idea in the early hours of the morning at Milton Keynes.

Should Labour come to power, Pfizer and any other major international group will have to think very carefully whether it’s worth their time bidding for a big UK company. That’s astute politics at a time when protectionism seems to be sweeping Europe; whether that’s good for Britain’s foreign investment prospects is another matter.

Should Labour lose, there will be a vacancy at the top and Mr Umunna might already secured some still crucial union support. Despite his politically tender age, he has long been considered as a potential leader – not least by himself, according to his critics. But they also used to add “only by himself”. That cutting aside no longer bears any resemblance to reality. 

It’s just a shame that Mr Umunna will press home that point in Milton Keynes rather than a business-loving university that suitably counts AstraZeneca among its many commercial collaborators.

Will nuclear watchdog get its teeth into the job?

As we revealed on Tuesday, the Office for Nuclear Regulation has got off to a difficult start as a properly independent body. Separated from the Health & Safety Executive only last month, the regulator already faces accusations of conflicts of interest.

The ONR receives technical advice from some of the very firms it is supposed to be monitoring, including the US engineering conglomerate Jacobs that is also part of the consortium that runs the Atomic Weapons Establishment.  Information secured through a Freedom of  Information request from David Lowry shows a separate panel of technical experts will be told by the ONR: “To foster trust and open debate, without constraint, members will be expected to work collegiately and not use information that is received as part of the panel to brief against it.” The sheer thought!