Leading Article:Heseltine finds that the frontier has moved

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The Independent Online
Michael Heseltine's chagrin is understandable. The Tories have long been the natural party of British business. They aren't any longer - which is why Mr Heseltine, a formidable operator, is guilty not just of tactical error but a failure of political imagination all the more remarkable in someone whose own past views on UK plc and government intervention branded him definitely not "one of us". The Tories cannot see that history has moved on. It is a sign of genuine national progress that Labour lambs can sit down with business lions and that British business leaders are at last prepared to think about party allegiance for themselves and forswear that knee-jerk tribalism that too often in the past made the Institute of Directors, let alone City dining rooms, into outstations of Conservative Central Office.

Traditionally business did veer towards the partisan right. The City is dominant, and English bankers have, at least since the middle of the last century, associated themselves with a reactionary stance in politics. For too many of them, Montagu Norman is still a patron saint. British business's conservatism has of course also been conditioned by the rhetorical commitment of Labour to ending the capitalist system. In practice Labour governments have got on famously with individual business leaders, from Beaverbrook (a Cabinet colleague of Attlee and Bevin in the wartime coalition) to Harold Wilson's industrialist chums. But the madness of Labour's turn to the left in the Eighties allowed the Conservatives to lodge the impression that business support for Labour was akin to the proverbial turkey voting for the festive season.

But only blind prejudice would deny that Tony Blair has sloughed much of Labour's historical skin. Meanwhile, out in the private economy, company directors (a hugely diverse bunch, which no amount of Institute of Directors' collectivism can amalgamate into a single voice) nowadays make pragmatic judgements about the parties. It is probably true that the "social consciousness" of members of Germany's Mittelstand is higher, and that Italy's small and medium enterprises are much more diverse in political allegiance, but evidence is growing that Britain's "business community" cannot be locked up in the blue column. Most businessmen probably prefer the idea of a Conservative government. But their support should not be taken for granted. Some businessmen have had fruitful dealings with Labour local authorities; others have enough political awareness to register the mighty presentational changes wrought by the Blairites. Either way they are quite capable of calling the shots on their own and concluding that it may even be advantageous to their cash flow to favour a party other than the Conservatives.

This was the kernel of Michael Heseltine's mistake: to lambast the business members of the Institute of Public Policy Research's commission as if they were capable of being turned into party dupes. His attitude is redolent of an old-fashioned statism - business people are naifs, children in matters of policy and politics who need the tutelage of a professional. Michael Heseltine likes it to be remembered that he made a lot of money as a publisher. True, but he has now been a professional Tory politician for far too many years, and his rant will rightly have been found offensive by many practising money-makers, who think they can make up their own minds about which party they feel loyal to.

Those who consider the distribution of economic power within Britain's private sector peculiar may say that the historical connection between directors, Rotary Clubs, chambers of trade and local Tory associations is fixed. For those who like to model things this way capitalists - whether Anglo-Saxon or Rhenish - will tend to support the party of property and disdain the party of high taxation. But must the party of the left be an enemy of property or the party of high income tax? That certainly was not the guise adopted by Shadow Chancellor Brown on Monday. Look meanwhile at the other great example of Anglo-Saxon capitalism - the United States - and see that there need be no fixed relationship between those who run companies and make profits, and the party of the right. Both American parties are pro-business.

The Labour Party is not the Democratic Party - yet. Messrs Blair and Brown have - yet - to be tested in the crucible of office, fending off party demands while fiscal contingencies bubble mercilessly away. Down in certain constituencies the red flag flutters and attitudes towards profit-taking and enterprise are still antediluvian. A Blair government will have to master the trick of recognising the justice of employees' claims while continuing to distance itself from Labour's historical partnership with the trade unions. Labour's business education is incomplete.

But that is why Sir Christopher Harding, Robert Ayling et al must turn on their accusers and say: it is now that Labour's modernisers need all the help they can get, not in some hole-in-the-corner fashion, but up front. It is in the interests of British firms individually and British business collectively that political life should move away from the spite and confrontation epitomised by Michael Heseltine's characterisation of a pro-business and anti-business divide. When both parties are pro- business, it will be the quality of their policies that matters - welfare into work, schooling, skill training, regional economic advance, research, all those areas of "deep investment" for which the state alone possesses the resources and time horizon. Thatcherism redrew the economic boundary; Labour accepts that. It is time to step up exchanges along that new frontier, which is why the Tory response to the IPPR commission will dismay perceptive business people as they look forward to political change with equanimity, if not outright enthusiasm.