Labour’s response to the Tories’ business letter has been an epic act of political self-harm

by Atul Hatwal

When the history of the 2015 general election is written, the Tories’ business letter in the Telegraph will be seen as a pivotal moment. Pivotal because of what it presaged for the potency of a key Tory line of attack in the campaign and Labour’s inability to mount a convincing response.

For the Tories, the letter is not just a one-off story but part of a longer, sustained offensive that will build over the coming days and weeks. More business leaders will have been lined up to intervene to kick the story on, reheat it if it cools and bulldoze the central Tory message on Labour and the economy, into the public consciousness.

How do I know? Because I have a memory which stretches back to the 2010 campaign, something that Ed Miliband’s strategists evidently lack.

In 2010, the single most damaging intervention in the campaign was the letter from business leaders opposing Labour’s National Insurance tax rise. The manner in which more and more business signatories were rolled out by the Tories dominated days of coverage and shattered Labour’s fragile reputation for economic competence.

To paraphrase Tony Blair, the public might not cherish these business leaders as national treasures but they do believe that Britain’s CEOs know more about creating jobs and wealth than politicians.

In the end there were over 500 signatories of the 2010 letter running businesses that employed over 1m people, with all sectors and ethnicities represented.

Tuesday’s letter in the Telegraph is just the start.

Damaging as the Tory offensive is though, perhaps the worst aspect of the exchange between the parties has been Labour’s response.

On Twitter, Labour activists, candidates and Labour supporting journalists engaged in an epic, collective act of political self-harm as the story broke.

There was a deluge of abuse, castigating the business leaders – some of whom had once been among Labour’s most prominent backers – as Tory stooges, tax dodgers and all round authors of proletarian misery.

The simple question every Labour member and supporter should have asked is, “how would the Tories want me to react?”

The guttural Labour anger was the stuff of Tory dreams. There, in public, paraded before the watching media and undecided voters, Labour was confirming one of the Tories’ most powerful dividing lines: that Labour is anti-business while the Tories are pro-business.

This very public Labour tantrum destroyed the impact of two previous days’ solid work where the party had made a credible case that the Tories, with their obsession about Europe, were a danger to business.

I know two CEOs who were considering approaching the party to offer to speak up in defence of Labour. Not now. How many more will have decided to keep their heads down and sit out this campaign?

On Tuesday evening Labour released its own letter with 100 signatories, which sought to make a virtue of its weakness, interspersing those business leaders (less than 20 at my count) who would publicly endorse the party with an assortment of celebrities (does Peter Duncan from Blue Peter in the 1980s still count?) and overwhelmingly, workers on zero hours contracts.

But this simply won’t cut it.

In its letter, Labour is confusing medium and message. Yes Labour has a letter, but it does not rebut the Tories’ attack on economic competence.

Few doubt that Labour will protect the most disadvantaged, such as those on zero hours contracts, but Labour’s letter does precious little to challenge the perception that the people who run Britain’s businesses think that Labour will ruin the economy.

And when the legion of business leaders that the Tories have held back, including small businesses, weigh in, what will Labour’s response be then? Another letter with even fewer business signatories?

Labour’s emotional reaction to the Telegraph letter, from activists through to party leaders, has helped define the prism through which the journalists will report on the party and business and framed a central choice for last minute wavering voters: if you think that the people running businesses know more than politicians about the conditions needed for their businesses to flourish, vote Tory; if you think that Labour politicians, fading celebrities and people facing economic hardship know more, vote Labour.

It doesn’t represent the real choice between the main parties, it’s hopelessly skewed, but there it is, the choice that Labour has embraced.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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26 Responses to “Labour’s response to the Tories’ business letter has been an epic act of political self-harm”

  1. Robert says:

    The Tories failed to get a majority in 2010 and Labour did no worse than anybody expected. This suggests that the letter from business leaders was not a massive success then and it is doubtul whether the latest letter will be any more successful now.

  2. Blairite says:

    @Robert – No, it didn’t. It helped the Tories (who were actually close in the polls at time) and meant more swing voters trusted the Tories on the economy. Then again, you switched your support from the Lib Dems to the SNP so I doubt you’d understand.

  3. Sunny H says:

    This is hopelessly silly.

    In fact, in 2010, the Tories ended up a full point lower on election night than they were when the letter was published. See YouGov.
    Furthermore, the letter wasn’t pivotal then – it was the collapse of Northern Rock that killed Labour’s reputation for competence.

    Secondly, this same letter now doesn’t challenge any of the perceptions they should have wanted to, that they’re just being backed by rich guys. If they were clever they’d have gotten people who normally WOULDN’T support Tories to sign such a letter. Their problem isn’t that people think CEOs don’t support them.

    The other thing that was predictable was your response to the response to the letter.

  4. @Robert says:

    @Robert – In 2010, the Tories failed to get a majority with a higher share of the vote than Labour got in 2005 when challenged by a stronger opposition. Business leaders didn’t act this way in 2010, because they didn’t fear Brown as much as they fear Miliband.

  5. Johnnydub says:

    John Prescott’s response:

    “Tax Dodgers Tory Donors and Non-Doms”

    Crude, ignorant and profoundly stupid – well that’s John Prescott for you.

    What does that sort of knee jerk insult say to people? And if you alienate the private sector, who the hell is going to pay the taxes for the public sector?

    Just monstrous bitter stupidity.

  6. james says:

    The martin Freeman response is even worse. Take a ‘do as I say not as I do’ millionaire without checking him out beforehand. God knows what Freeman was thinking – many will have been turned off his work.

    The ‘ordinary people’ meme for an opposition only works at the local level. ‘Mrs Smith says ‘xxx works hard in the area – he/she helped keep the post office open’. Big picture politics isn’t the narrative currency when times are hard.

  7. Madasafish says:

    Of course Labour has business leaders who support them. Look at Lord Sugar who donated lots of money to the party in the past..

    “Lord Sugar Wants To Fire Labour Leader Ed Miliband And Bring Back Gordon Brown”

  8. Brian says:

    IMO Labour’s biggest mistake was their timing producing this letter. Any party has to be proactive to set the agenda. Labour’s response was not only late it also exacerbated the generally held opinion of their economic incompetency.

    Their letter should have been produced 2 days ago when Balls was in Scotland.

  9. dave t says:

    Having having a go at zero hour contracts when they only affect about 2.3% iof workers and then we find that LABOUR MPs including Burnham and Balls use them rather undermines the whole line of attack. The campaign team are coming across as amateurs who react to rather than create the narrative. As for using Freeman when he uses private healthcare, sends his kid to private school and claims not to have voted Labour last time! Do people not vet potential high visibility supporters to ensure their message can’t be lost in the aftermath when they’re proved to be hypocrites?!!!

  10. Weygand says:

    This analysis is absolutely spot on.
    Come election day, the question all voters will ask themselves is “Which party will best direct the economy and so best protect/raise my standard of living?”
    Policies giving priority to raising productivity (most easily done by sacking people) or outlawing zero-hour contracts (so leading to many workers presently on them being sacked) is not likely to send the message that “Vote Labour” is the best answer to that question.

  11. dave t says:

    Interesting that my reasonable and hopefully hepful comment has not appeared yet…..

  12. John Campbell says:

    Milliband is confused….and confusing me!

    The reason he dosent think the British public should be allowed a voice on European membership is….because BIG business dosent want to leave the EU. So he is the friend of business and listens to what they say.

    Now when those same people he listens to actually say something that goes against his own little self beleif it is “Same old…same old….they dont know what they are talking about”

    Zero hours contracts are nothing to pick a fight over. Better a zero hours contract than no contract at all and much better than “Come back tomorrow….we might have something for you then”.
    Finally if after 12 weeks of “regular hours” I am to be given a contract based on those regular hours what happens if my hours are suddenly cut in week 11? Does the contract clock start again? And again and again……

  13. Dougie says:

    And now we discover the Labour council in Ed’s own constituency employs hundreds of workers on zero hours contracts. Joined-up or what?

  14. paul barker says:

    The significance of The Letter & the response is that it confirms the negative sterotypes for both Labour & Tories, pushing both back to their core voters. Labours problem there is that the Tories core vote is substantially larger. This is more like a 25% strategy.

  15. Joe Roberts says:

    Atul, you don’t appear to share any of the Labour party’s instincts or values, or even to like it very much. Why are you still a party member? Why don’t you just join the Conservatives given that you have spent the last five years praising most of their policies and implicitly endorsing their re-election?

  16. Madasafish says:

    So the Opposition is not joined up , they don’t think things through despite having had years to do so..

    I wonder hoe they would cope with Government and real problems?

  17. Eric Jong says:

    “Few doubt that Labour will protect the most disadvantaged, such as those on zero hours contracts…..”

    Is that a fact? I doubt it. I saw that there are 70 Labour MPs who staff their offices with people on zero-hour contracts, and they don’t even want to admit it.

  18. 07052015 says:

    The letter ruse had value for labour in 97,2001 and 2005 becos it was not what voters expected to hear.

    When it was for the tories it has less value full stop as it is no surprise.Bit like trade union leaders supporting labour.

    Some of these characters are just after honours ,some dont pay the minimum wage ,others seem to be wanna be politicians and some are only bothered about their own personal tax arrangements.

    But above all their companies have had a reduction in corporation tax from 28 to 21 percent with 20 percent to come .I dont expect voters to know this but surely atul should.

  19. Alexsandr says:

    Labour should stop rattling on about zero hours
    It will turn off those on those contracts as they will fear new regulation will leave them unemployed
    Lots of people like them. Many students and pensioners are on them. As are agency workers who only get work when the agency has work.
    Its so easily shown as being a daft policy by looking at the real world, and articles are appearing in the press debunking the policy.

  20. Mynedd says:

    Well, this is an intelligent and thoughtful analysis. Something we haven’t seen much of in this election so far. The problem is that while the Tories are running a pretty uninspired election (it is beyond me why they haven’t gone seriously on the attack over the economy, especially on jobs) the Labour party seems to be hunting out every possible pitfall and jumping straight in.

    When your leader is guilty of a very suspicious bit of tax dodging, it’s not as good idea to pile in with this as a primary policy, and when vast numbers of MPs and Labour councils made heavy use of zero-hour contracts, it’s a bit dim to go on about how dreadful they are – Tristram Hunt being eviscerated on Daily Politics was not exactly inspiring. It’s also probably not a great idea, when Mid Staffs and Morecambe are still relatively fresh in people’s minds, and the recent cancer survival rates have been published, about how great the NHS is in its current form. When ‘free at the point of use’ is given more prominence than ‘good medical outcomes’, something worrying is going on.

    Unfortunately, Ed does not seem to be much of a thinker, and certainly has nothing like the intellectual firepower Blair could call on, whether it was Mandelson, Adonis or even Straw or Field (who was sacked pretty promptly, it must be admitted). But even admitting that, the number of gross, self-inflicted wounds is depressing.

  21. George S says:

    whats worrying if milliband gasps over the line is …
    -his predicted dependency on the ‘committed to uk break up’ snp
    -his hypocrisy on tax avoidance
    -harman and her ‘court of public opinion’ (in other words laws dont matter)
    -his poor relations with private business … profit is a dirty word
    -public/state no matter how inefficient or flawed is superior
    -inability to think joined up – lets rip zero hour contracts when we make use of them
    -threatening the utilities when we actually NEED their investment in new powersources
    -implement green taxes then complain about the high price of energy

    its like reading a text book on how to run the economy where no chapters are actually aware of its interrelationship/connected nature.
    I fear an endless succession of policies implemented to great fanfare followed by massive damaging consequences then humble pie retractions. how many of those before labour become a laughing stock?

  22. BenM says:

    According to Atul Labour has been self harming for 5 years.

    Yet here we are, one calendar month to the election, and a poll by Populus has Labour 2 points clear.

  23. Tafia says:

    BenM, when you quote one poll in isolation you show yourself up to be the vacuous half-wit you really are. It’s trends that count in polls – not one in isolation – basic kiddie stuff taught in GCSE maths to 14 year olds just starting to be taught stats that somehow seems to be intellectually light years ahead of you.

    Try reading something simple to start with – such as UK Polling, then work up to more complex things.

  24. Tafia says:

    Oh, and learn about margins of error.

    The polls remain locked in dead heat – which considering 1 year ago Labour were light years in front in every poll by every pollster, shows Labour’s lack of appeal – which is largely down to it’s shockingly poor and in some cases highly discredited front bench team

  25. Tafia says:

    Average of all polls taken so far since April:-

    Con 33.29%
    Lab 33.86%

  26. Tafia says:

    Today’s polls (thursday)

    And as an example, 5 polls today.

    YouGov/Sun: CON 35, LAB 34, UKIP 12, LD 8, GRN 4
    ComRes/Mail/ITV: CON 34, LAB 33, UKIP 12, LD 12, GRN 4
    TNS: CON 30, LAB 33, UKIP 19, LD 8, GRN 4
    Panelbase: CON 31, LAB 37, UKIP 16, LDEM 8, GRN 4
    Survation: CON 31, LAB 35, UKIP 15, LDEM 9, GRN 4

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