Goodbye Lord Sugar. It’s time for a normal relationship between Labour and business

by Dan Cooke

It’s a sure sign you’re in a bad way when someone as pugnacious as Lord Sugar takes care to fire you gently, stressing that they don’t want to “stick in the boot”.

In truth, it is the very blandness of Sugar’s announcement of his resignation from the Labour party that is most damning. Sugar apparently did not even feel the need to explain what were Labour’s “negative business policies and general anti-enterprise concepts” that concerned him, or how these compared with policies of Gordon Brown which he praised.  He probably thought he did not need to because the perception that the Labour party is now “anti-business” has become so wide and deep that, for many, it requires no explanation.

Whether it is actually justified or not, this is a totally untenable impression for a mainstream political party to have created in a modern capitalist society. When too many swing voters decided that a vote for the Conservatives was a vote for a strong economy, the perception that companies on which millions rely for their livelihoods were behind the Tories, reflected in high-profile open letter campaigns, will have been a major contributing factor.  It is quite plausible that this impression was even more important than the debate about the causes and consequences of the deficit, on which the party has agonised incomparably more.

How has this happened? Labour, after all, is not the party that wants to put at risk access for British businesses to the single market in Europe and the network of EU-negotiated free trade agreements outside Europe. Labour is not the party that hinders businesses obtaining crucial work permits for skilled workers because of an arbitrary and undeliverable immigration cap. And Labour is not the party that has put ideology ahead of commercial logic with unworkable schemes like the widely mocked “shares for rights” proposal.

And it is hard to believe that modest incremental reforms like raising the minimum wage or abolishing the recent innovation of zero hours contracts really struck fear into the corporate sector.

Some part of the answer may be that the Tories enjoy a built-in head-start in garnering business approval, and so are afforded greater tolerance for their own “anti-business” policies. It would be statistically highly probable that some of the most senior business leaders will be natural (and sometimes even card-carrying) Conservatives, based on their social background and remuneration alone. As a result, realistically, it will always be easier for the Tories to muster a list of CEOs to sign a supportive letter than it will be for Labour.

However, the bigger part of the answer is far more important. Business is not inherently party-political, inevitably harbours a range of views on points of policy and will not expect universal accord with any political party. Business is also subject to constant change, and new ideas on issues which Labour cares about,  like maximising productivity, incentivising investment, engaging and motivating employees, and developing workforce skills, are enthusiastically and urgently debated every day by business leaders.

Yet in recent years Labour largely ignored the opportunity for a serious dialogue on how government and business can effectively work together on these and other issues,  instead offering slogans and buzzwords, including the notorious distinction between “predators” and “producers”.  At best this created the impression that we were unserious and, at worst, that we saw business as the enemy.  Occasionally trying to pose as champions of small business was no answer to this criticism, as it merely repeated the mistake of presuming to divide business into deserving and undeserving categories based on half-baked distinctions.

In this way, through little more than a fit of absence of mind, we created a near unanimous impression we did not even care what most of the business community thought, and that its interests would probably be ignored by a Labour government.

Fortunately, as Labour’s failings in this area have been so crudely and gratuitously self-inflicted,  the way forward is not hard to identify and, with effort, progress can be almost guaranteed. Labour first needs to start talking seriously to business again, and letting it be known we are doing so: engaging with a wide range of different types of enterprises on a wide range of issues, treating those in business as grown-ups and showing that we are too. Business figures should be offered the opportunity to contribute to policy development, not as privileged arbiters of what is right but as respected stakeholders among others including the unions.

As we develop more detailed proposals on skills, tax, enterprise and the workplace we should not expect or seek unanimous approval from business, but should argue our case with humility, pragmatism and honesty when we find disagreement.  This would mean we would have a normal relationship for a mainstream political party with the business community.

This might, or might not, be a Labour party that Lord Sugar would see fit to re-join, but that doesn’t matter very much. The tendency to be star-struck by individual converts from commerce declaring for the Labour team has usually ended badly (think the far less gracious Digby Jones) and is actually part of the problem. Business isn’t looking for a teen-age crush, but a grown up relationship. If we can manage that, some tycoons might still write to the Telegraph supporting the Conservatives, but more would hold back, and Labour will not carry the millstone we had in the last election into the next.

Dan Cooke is a Labour member and business lawyer

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7 Responses to “Goodbye Lord Sugar. It’s time for a normal relationship between Labour and business”

  1. Anne says:

    Good article – this is when the Labour Party needs support – Lord Sugar would have been better helping the party with business relationships – he is what I call a fair weather friend – always wants to be on the winning side regardless of principles – says more about his character than anything

  2. Ex labour says:

    This is an excellent summary of Labour business failure. However it only skims the surface and offers no solutions. Why the mild criticism of Sugar ? If you invite a friend to dinner and then insult them, they will leave.

    Labour has to ask deeper questions. Why was this allowed to happen ? Who was advising Miliband to say this nonsense ? Was it actully Red Ed defining this strategy ?Did anyone except Unite actually agree with this position? What input did the unions have in the anti-business narrative ? Understand why and then you will be able to move on.

    The part answer of course is to say that Miliband thought there was a wave of anti business, anti-banker, pro-tax sentiment within the public’s mind. But as I pointed out on this site several times that the public held Labour at least partly responsible for the financial crisis but there was no acknowledgement from Labour of their part.

    I also pointed out, as you have done, that Labour were hitting out at businesses that employ thousands, if not millions, of Labour supporters and this was seen as putting their jobs and family future at risk.

    its unpopular to mention the “B-Word” but Blair got the approach to business broadly right – but ssshhhhhh say it softly as the “comrades” might not like it.

  3. swatantra says:

    Labour must learn to love Business in the same way that Labour must learn to love Peter Mandelson well his ideas anyway, otherwise its not going to get far in the 21 Century. That’s why Chuka is the ideal candidate for Leader.
    Never liked Alan Sugar, there was always that air of the spiv about him and you never could feel you could trust him. Now we know you can’t. The man should give back his title with 10% interest added.

  4. Tafia says:

    That’s why Chuka is the ideal candidate for Leader.

    Bac ked a donkey there, eh lad? Faller before even starters orders.

  5. AnneJGP says:

    we should not expect or seek unanimous approval from business, but should argue our case with humility, pragmatism and honesty when we find disagreement

    Yes, indeed. It would be a good idea. Do you see any chance whatever of this happening? When even people within the Labour party are reviled as ‘Tory plants’ or whatever for taking a different view?

  6. swatantra says:

    @ Tafia I backed Andy in 2010 because he had a Liverpool accent; I’ll back him this time and he’ll win. Lets hope Andy gives more visible support to the SME’s in Britain.
    More people work in the Private sector than they do in the Public sector.
    And Wealth Creation is important as Trickett and others has finally admitted; what a turn about!
    The Left need to get real. Its not just workers that add to the wealth of a Nation; its also Business and management and entrepreneurs that build the businesses that employ the workers that create the wealth. Its a joint enterprise

  7. Tafia says:

    Swat, as an outsider I must say it looks very much a done deal – Burnham will be leader, Kendall will be deputy. Left and right, male and female, traditionalist and moderniser.

    But don’t worry. They’ll have to resign in May 2020 and Jarvis will re-appear.

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