Labour offers industry fresh menu in Brussels

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT WILL be a night for captains of industry to remember: they will be whisked by Channel Tunnel train to the heart of Europe to savour dinner in one of the great gourmet capitals of the Continent with people who have access to the power-brokers of the EU.

This is the latest venture by the new model, commerce- friendly Labour Party. Fresh from its success at the European elections and confident of its growing ability to raise funds from big business, it is planning an event in Brussels along the lines of the pounds 500-a-head gala dinners it now holds in London.

Party sources say the Brussels dinner would both raise funds for the party and provide the opportunity for European- based multinational corporations to establish an entente cordiale with Labour's 62 Euro- MPs. The British contingent might number around 100.

This friendliness towards business began in earnest three years ago with the first of Labour's fund-raising gala dinners. The warming of relations is likely to be strengthened even further if Tony Blair, as expected, is elected leader.

But this continuing relationship with big business - which now includes flirtations with the likes of Philip Morris Inc, Hanson Trust and British Aerospace - is troubling Labour left-wingers, including members of the Shadow Cabinet and the National Executive Committee.

They believe that this new commercial thrust might create the sort of policy conflicts which Labour has always accused the Conservatives of having. A senior party member expressed concern that companies such as Philip Morris, the tobacco-to- foods conglomerate, and British Aerospace, the arms manufacturer, were both represented at Labour's last gala dinner, on the eve of John Smith's death.

This put the Labour Party in the extraordinary position of taking a prominent Philip Morris advertisement in its gala dinner programme while favouring a ban on tobacco advertising.

The advertisement pronounced that Philip Morris, which is advised by Lady Thatcher, was 'proud to be associated' with the Labour Party's gala dinner.

NEC member Clare Short wants the party to develop guidelines on the matter. 'Obviously we have to fund-raise but I think that we should pause and develop a code of ethics,' she said. 'We need to think about companies we should not have anything to do with - what we do about smoking, for example.'

Although acceptance of the Labour Party is growing - the last dinner attracted five times as many corporate guests as on previous occasions - a certain stigma is still attached to sympathy for the People's Party. Few of those at the function, for example, wished to be identified. As one explained: 'I cannot possibly tell you who else was there. In the City it would be like being 'outed'.'

Other fund-raising activities are increasing too. Membership of the 1000 Club, for individuals paying pounds 1,000 a year or more to the party, which since December 1990 has been arranging dinners mainly for City figures and members of the Shadow Cabinet, has risen strongly. Its president is acting leader Margaret Beckett and the chair is Ken Follett, the author. Last week the Industry Forum, a discussion group for the party and business leaders, attracted 30 people, including a director of Hanson Trust, the company which has a long track record of supporting the Conservatives and gave pounds 100,000 to the party in 1992, to take part in a discussion of Robin Cook's recent paper; 'Winning for Britain.'

One of the Labour Party's fund-raisers, Paul Blagbrough, who formerly worked at the City investment firm Save and Prosper, says that Labour recognises that it needs 'a dialogue with the corporate sector and events that are organised, such as the gala dinners, are opportunities to give substance to that idea'.

Some suggestions have been turned down. A plan for Sainsbury to sponsor women's events at the party conference has been rejected, as has a suggestion that MPs' conference folders might bear the Tesco label.