Election '97: Party of enterprise parades its wares

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair yesterday paraded his supporters from the business community as Labour set about persuading the voters that they and not the Conservatives are the natural party of enterprise. Among the company chiefs crammed into the Institute of Chartered Accountants for the launch of Labour's business manifesto, there was no bigger catch than Gerry Robinson, chairman of the television-to-hotels group Granada.

To prove his commitment, Mr Robinson has appeared in Labour's election broadcasts and has donated pounds 10,000 to party funds.

He began his conversion from Conservative to Labour 18 months ago. The Tories' handling of Europe had, he said, begun turning into a "disaster" for business while Mr Blair had shown his determination to overhaul and modernise the Labour Party by abandoning its historic commitment to Clause 4.

"To see the Labour Party now specifically setting out an agenda for business is a sea-change," said Mr Robinson, adding that he had no qualms about being associated with the policies in the party's document, Equipping Britain for the Future. These include a national minimum wage and statutory union recognition but also a commitment to low inflation, tough public- spending controls and the sale of unwanted state assets.

Tim Waterstone, founder of the eponymous book-shop chain and another Labour convert, said that the Tories were "intellectually and morally exhausted" and had let Britain down on Europe and education. "I don't see any more of the politics of envy that so disfigured Labour 20 years ago," he said.

Sarah McCartney, owner of a small marketing consultancy, Little Max, said she had voted for Mrs Thatcher in 1979 but had now decided that Labour would be the party that best represented the small-business community. "They deal with real everyday difficulties - late payment of debt, lack of access to training, lack of relevant advice and support."

But outside the carefully orchestrated confines of the manifesto launch, the reaction was not quite so warm. The big battalions of business, the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors, each expressed reservations.

Both organisations welcomed Labour's policies on inflation, public spending , education and the single market. But the CBI voiced concern over the windfall tax and Labour's backing for the Social Chapter and minimum wage. But even on these issues, Ruth Lea, head of policy at the IoD said there was room for hope.

"Labour has made so many U-turns on issues like privatisation that we are waiting to see which bit of policy they tear up next."

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