Ed Miliband’s attempt to woo company bosses who regard his policies as “anti-business” received a hostile response from some industry figures today.
Although the Labour leader softened his rhetoric in a speech to his mainly business audience, some of those present expressed concern that his interventionist, “anti-big business” stance could undermine the economy if Labour wins power next year.
Sir Roger Carr, the chairman of BAE Systems, won applause when he told a conference addressed earlier by Mr Miliband that the “demonisation” of business by politicians needed to stop. While small businesses were important, he said they needed big business to succeed too. He added politicians should not "lurch back" to the policies of the past in the hope they would provide a solution.
Responding to Mr Miliband’s speech, Katja Hall, the CBI’s deputy director, said: “We need politicians to focus on long-term solutions that set the right environment for businesses to create long-term prosperity - not policies or political rhetoric with short-term appeal. The CBI wants to see competitive markets but the way to get there is not by artificially intervening in markets to leave businesses with a lot of uncertainty, which will only serve to put investment decisions on hold.”
Harriet Green, chief executive of Thomas Cook, told BBC Radio 4 that every action planned by Labour was about “interventionism” rather than generating jobs, growth or exports.
Lord Sainsbury, Labour’s former Science Minister, opening the conference staged by the Policy Network think tank, said: “Neither industry nor the voters feel they fully know how the Labour Party views its relationship with industry.” He said business needed to know that Labour would support big business and applaud entrepreneurs.
Mr Miliband admitted that much of the business community felt that politicians showed "insufficient appreciation" for what they did for the country, and conceded that Labour would inevitably have policy differences with them. He added: "There is no way for our country to succeed without you - businesses big and small - succeeding."
He was received politely but was applauded when he pledged to resist pressure to match David Cameron’s promise of an in/out referendum on Europe in the 2015-20 parliament. Unite, Labour’s biggest donor, called this week for a referendum. But many bosses are worried about the uncertainty caused by Mr Cameron’s strategy and Labour believes Europe is its biggest “selling point” to the business world.
Mr Miliband said: “I am absolutely convinced that our future lies in the EU. I am not going to follow others in saying that we should commit to spending the next three years focusing on an EU referendum in 2017. It is not the priority for the country.”
Gene Sperling, a former economic adviser to US presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, told the conference: “It's a very, very serious mistake for the current Government to even flirt with the idea of walking away from the EU table. The world doesn't allow you to isolate yourself any more. You have to choose: are you going to be engaged in shaping European economic policy or are you going to walk away from the table?"
Some Labour politicians said Mr Miliband needed to build on yesterday’s address. One frontbencher admitted: “Businessmen are sceptical. They are not sure Ed really means it. One speech is not enough. We need more than a box-ticking exercise.”
But Lord Mandelson, who has been critical of Labour’s business stance and who organised today's conference with Ed Balls, backed Mr Miliband. “From a business point of view, his speech will be welcomed and judged a success. It was practical and gritty and that appeals,” he said.