Labour Conference: Blair seen by business as bulwark against old guard
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Tuesday 30 September 1997
"A lot of Labour activists will say, `We've worked 20 or 30 years for social justice, for all these values, and now there aren't any, this is a business person's Britain we are building'." The director of a food and drink conglomerate seemed to have the measure of the threat.
Business leaders think Tony Blair is the personal bulwark against the old Labour desire to "meddle". "The whole show depends on him," commented one. Asked to rate him out of 10, they gave him eight or nine, with one "10 out of 10". The Prime Minister's instincts were those of "the modern business agenda", said a company chairman.
That is what they, and thousands like them, said before the election too. When I followed Mr Blair around the country for his "business breakfasts", the message was always the same.
They liked what he said, the way he said it, his shirtsleeved no-nonsense style. It was his party they were not sure about. No matter how "new" the leader was, the old prejudices about Labour kept asserting themselves.
So the most impressive thing the Government has done so far was that "it has not disappointed", according to a group brought together over business-convention food and a glass of wine in central London.
Where policies had changed, this had been advertised well in advance. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, was praised for the way the windfall tax had been handled: "They said they were going to do it, they've done it, and the way they've done it has been managed in such a way that it hasn't made everyone run screaming about the place."
Independence for the Bank of England was also applauded as "very smart, very directional and slightly unexpected". But Mr Brown was condemned for the pounds 5bn-a-year tax on pension funds: "Shareholders feel very threatened by it," said an oil company manager, warning that her company might feel less loyalty to Britain as a result.
Meanwhile, the policies which produced friction and heat at the election turned out to be a non-issue. Neither the minimum wage nor the European Social Chapter was mentioned spontaneously in our discussion last month.
Surprisingly, perhaps, most of the group felt that if the Government clashed with the unions it would not give in to their demands. The Government will "have to act like they've said they'll act, and that will be to tough it out", said one.
Less surprising was the acclaim which greeted Mr Blair's willingness to bring in business leaders to advise and serve in his Government. "The fact that [Lord] Simon is now advising the Government is a good move. You couldn't get a better business leader," was one comment on the appointment of the former BP chairman as European trade minister.
The Government's determination to shift unemployed youngsters from "welfare to work" was also welcomed. " `Off the dole', or whatever it's called, is a fantastic thing - if they really were able to deliver something on that it would be a major change," said a company vice-chairman.
The food and drink conglomerate director said: "The more you enfranchise people and make them significant contributors to society, the more they will buy your bloody products."
The group dismissed constitutional reform as "small potatoes", and had few opinions about either home rule or electoral reform.
Although the group did not think the Government would run into trouble with the unions, they insisted that Labour was not - or at least not yet - the party of business. And they remained pessimistic about its long- term prospects. Not just because they were cynical about politics, but because they thought the Labour Party, and even Mr Blair himself, still clung to a belief in interventionism. Where they had had dealings with government ministers, our business people found the "New Labour guys very much easier to work alongside", but felt that there was still a "very substantial amount of Old Labour thinking around".
A Tory-voting chairman was most analytical: "I don't believe that Labour at its heart has changed its attitude to business." On the other hand, he admitted, "the manifesto positions it has taken mean that it will where possible adhere to the promises it has made, and I think there is an intention to do that. However, when the proverbial hits the fan economically, then that spin-doctoring commitment will be put to the test ..."
When asked if they were "afraid" of Old Labour, the group agreed, unanimously. But the important message is that if Mr Blair can hold his nerve, maintain his distance from trade union interests and deliver economic stability and growth, the scene is set for a historic shift of business people's assumptions about politics.
Opinion Leader Research convened a group discussion among eight directors, managers and partners on 20 August. They represented an oil multinational, a cosmetics company, a firm of City solicitors, a food and drink conglomerate, a nationalised industry and three small businesses.
Look beyond the usual shows for the best festive telly
newsFormer soldier taped 33 of the animals to the floor and then stamped on them one by one
Michelle Nijhuis' daughter insists (s)he is, and she learnt a valuable lesson on gender in books
Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
Robin Thicke named sexist of the year 2013
Cycle death inquest: Boyfriend hugs driver of 32 tonne tipper truck that killed his girlfriend
Paul Walker death caused by speed alone
Apollo Theatre collapse: Scores injured after ceiling collapses in London's West End
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
- 1 North Koreans are gasping for the truth: Let's give it to them
- 2 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 3 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- 4 Burglar steals video tapes of child abuse, hands them into police
- 5 Cycle death inquest: Boyfriend hugs driver of 32 tonne tipper truck that killed his girlfriend
- < Previous
- Next >
£28000 - £45000 per annum: Capita Education Resourcing Permanent Team: This pr...
£30000 - £36000 per annum: PCR Recruitment Limited: We are looking for an inno...
£18000 - £21000 per annum + Basic salary +incentives: FCm Travel Solutions: FC...
£54000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Flight Centre Limited: Flight Centre Glo...