Business plan: If Labour is to be elected this May, it needs to convince voters it wants to reform capitalism rather than replace it


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The Independent Online

The shadow Chancellor cannot name a single business supporter; his leader talks about “predatory capitalism”; and most of Labour’s more popular policies are an assault on the capitalist classes.

Thus we find Labour in favour of rent controls; against “privatisation” of the NHS (a much exaggerated claim); attacking privatised utilities and rail companies; pledging to re-regulate bus routes; and making transnational corporations pay their taxes.

No wonder, then, that Big Business, including its allies in the press, has started to snarl back. In an equal and opposite reaction, it claims that a Miliband-Balls administration would be a catastrophe, a disaster, a sellout to the unions, an invitation to Greek-style penury and a return to the 1970s.

All that is a bit silly. “Red” as the Eds may be by the standards of some in the corporate sector, they are nowhere near where Labour used to be, and that is before Tony Blair. (Though even in the 1997 high noon of New Labour, Mr Blair forced through a windfall tax on the privatised utilities for youth training, and imposed a national minimum wage.)

For the Miliband Labour Party, nationalisation remains omerta; Labour’s proposed top rate of income tax, at 50p, is where it stood for most of Margaret Thatcher’s time in power, and the unions are likely to be badly short-changed if they are expecting a return to the old immunities. Besides, bashing bankers and predatory energy and transport companies goes down pretty well with the average swing voter. That is partly why the Chancellor spends so much time trying to catch up with corporate tax evaders and avoiders.

Both political parties know the electorate senses that Big Finance, Big Pharma and Big Energy wield just as much harmful power as the union barons used to. Indeed, in the financial crisis of 2008, the banks held the nation to ransom in a way Bob Crow would have blushed at.

If the Labour Party’s relationship with “business” has had its ups and downs, so too has that of the voting public. On the one hand, post-Thatcher, the British seemed to have accepted, if not embraced, market capitalism. Yet they hardly fell in love with the business world, and the financial excesses of the 1980s and 2000s, plus the recessions that followed, made them much more wary. “Fairness” remains a more attractive word than “profit”.

Labour, to its electoral detriment, lagged behind the change in public mood which swung to the right so markedly in 1979. By 1987, most of the nationalisation agenda had been ditched; by 1992 we had the then shadow Chancellor, John Smith, on his “prawn cocktail” charm offensive in the City; by the 1990s Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had caught up with the electorate’s thinking and swallowed the Thatcher revolution.

Thus, they renounced any ambition to reform trade union law; said that ownership of British companies didn’t matter that much; and recruited Rupert Murdoch to their cause. If Labour now tries to claim the Tories are the “friends of the bankers”, then we have only to think back to the way the then City minister Ed Balls indulged the investment bankers in that long, damaging boom.

This leaves one last point for Labour’s attitude to business: Europe. Just one Miliband speech defending our economic interests in the EU could be enough to have some of his harshest business critics saying nice things about him. A fairly faint hope, admittedly, but it might stop those capitalist predators from pecking at him.