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Labour should prioritise unions over business

There are 400 ‘business representatives’ at the Labour Party conference this week, to highlight an interesting choice of words found in a recent Financial Times report. I am kind of hoping that the phrase is an unnecessarily imprecise synonym for ‘exhibitors’.

But if the rules have been changed while I wasn’t looking and the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors do get official delegations nowadays, that would only mark the logical culmination of the trajectory Labour has been on since the days of the Prawn Cocktail Offensive of some 20 years ago.

Actually, there is a sense in which business does wield a de facto block vote, or at least a veto. When it comes to making policy, its voice is heard at least as clearly as that of the affiliated trade unions that put up the bulk of the party’s cash.

The rhetoric currently emanating from Labour’s business spokesperson Chuka Umunna even speaks of ‘celebrating’ companies simply for obeying the law by paying the amount of taxation they owe. Sanctions against those that do not would perhaps be rather more pertinent, no?

So while several hundred business people have eagerly converged on Manchester, discretely to lobby Labour politicos at endless tedious champagne receptions, rather fewer attendees will be pushing for the interests of NEETs or minimum wage workers. There may not even 400 properly elected constituency delegates joining the proceedings.

And when business does put its agenda forward, it is not derided as ‘one sectional interest’. The necessity that its concerns be incorporated is taken for granted, often even where they conflict with the legitimate concerns of employees.

The trouble is that social democratic parties cannot consistently be all things to all forces in society; if only in order to achieve differentiation from the centre right, they have to offer policies that reflect the interests of their base, however indirectly.

While the bulk of the left has moved on from the days of wanting to nationalise the local chip shop, most of us realise that business leaders have to be told that they do not automatically get what they want every time, as if the political process was some sort of slot machine rigged to come up with three cherries every time.

There are occasions when Ed Miliband seems to get that, at least on some level. While the commitment to ring-fencing retail and investment banking is hardly a radical stance, it at least demonstrates sufficient backbone to ignore the entreaties of the British Bankers’ Association.

Most famously of all was last year’s ‘predators and producers’ conference speech, which did at least acknowledge that capitalism does have unacceptable faces.

So it is disappointing is to hear him brush aside the points made by Len McCluskey this morning, as if Unite were just one more pressure group that should get in the queue alongside the Association of UK Widget Manufacturers if it wants to raise anything with the Labour Party.

For well over two decades now, the unions have been de facto second class citizens in the party they created and for which they still largely pay. So far their patience and forbearance has exceed that which many of us would once have considered reasonably possible. It would be unwise to assume that it will be indefinite.

For Ed Miliband to use such circumlocutions as ‘the party of the private sector’ leaves open the question of whether Labour is on the side of private sector workers or private sector bosses, and what happens when the two collide.

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