Labour talks to business

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The Independent Online
Labour's contacts with business and industry, and their desire to hear and influence Labour policy, are more extensive than ever before.

At the immediate policy level, Labour has consulted much more widely than in the past before formulating policy. The information superhighway document produced by Chris Smith, for example, followed a "policy forum" in which Labour frontbenchers took evidence from companies, almost in the style of a Commons select committee, from British Telecom and Mercury to the cable operators and others.

Frontbenchers regularly meet business leaders through the Industry Forum - an arm's-length body set up in 1993 in Robin Cook's day as trade and industry spokesman. It has regular meetings across sectors - pharmaceuticals or telecoms, for example - and across issues, such as small business or competition policy.

About 150 companies and trade associations contribute between pounds 500 and pounds 1,000, either as active members or more passive subscribers, to an information service. Some 30 are happy to be named, including Thorn/EMI, BAA, ICL, Merck, Sharpe & Dohme and Tesco, and they include past Tory party contributors such as McAlpine.

Others, however, do not want their names released. "Some are still very sensitive about it, and I think that's a pretty awful reflection on the current goverment", says Gerald Frankel, the businessman who chairs the forum. "It doesn't like people talking to the opposition party." With potential government contracts at stake, "some are very nervous about it being known that they are having a dialogue with the Opposition. This is a very unhealthy development that I've watched take place in the past 10 years or so".

Executives, however, have attended in steadily increasing numbers the business seminars that the Fabian Society has run with Labour frontbench spokesmen; while Neil Stewart, a former Kinnock aide, has specialised in heavily subscribed conferences for business and the public sector, which attract executives to hear and attempt to influence Labour's view of the world.

Last week the business breakfast that Gordon Brown held at the Institute for Public Policy Research drew an audience that included the chairman, chief executive or managing director from a string of blue chip companies, including Pearson, Reckitt & Colman, the Prudential, Lehman Brothers, Lucas, Unilever and IBM.

The IPPR itself has seen its corporate sponsorship rise sharply over the past year, with companies from the telecoms industry, the media, banking, the pharmaceutical industry and other sectors sponsoring its work directly or contributing to its core funding.

Stands for next year's party conference are already sold out, after a year which saw the highest proportion ever taken by corporate clients.

Robin Gray, from the Public Policy Unit, one of the leading lobbying firms, did not beat about the bush when he spoke at a private conference last month. Shadow frontbench spokesmen were already "run ragged" by invitations from lobbyists and their clients. Their diaries were virtually full. But if the audience of representatives from some of Britain's biggest companies, including British Aerospace and Cable & Wireless, wanted to get their messages across before the next election, now was the time to write.

In the office of Margaret Beckett, Labour's new trade and industry spokesperson, they well know what Mr Gray was talking about. "She has a tray-full of invitations," said one of her staff, adding that it was growing daily, as companies wanted to talk to her about Labour's forthcoming trade and industry policy document.

Michael Meacher's office is similarly bombarded. "Because industry thinks Labour is set to win, it is pressing hard to lobby shadow ministers," said Mr Meacher's assistant.

"If I write to 25 organisations, I will receive phone calls the following day from 23," said Mr Meacher's aide. "That would not have happened a few years ago."

Likewise, if a Shadow spokesperson makes a speech, he or she can expect to have requests for copies almost immediately from three or four lobbying organisations. Again, that was not the case in the run up to the 1992 election.

Where once there was silence, now there is two-way dialogue. As the prospect of government looms, Labour and lobbying are not such dirty words after all.