Tom Newham: Three reasons to keep lobbying Labour
Labour looks less appealing to business than at any time in the last century. So why bother trying to lobby its politicians?
Must Labour lose? This was the question asked of a group of pollsters and researchers by Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell in 1960, shortly after the party had lost its third successive general election, to Harold Macmillan’s Tories. Their answer, in what became a seminal text in Labour history, was a fairly resounding ‘yes’ – for three reasons. Labour’s traditional working class base was changing in culture and composition, and switching en masse to the Conservatives. The party was desperately tainted by association with hard left economic policies. And, to top it off, voters were alarmed by the weak and indecisive leadership of the party, locked into endless left-right feuds over party democracy, relations with Europe and the US, and Britain’s nuclear deterrent.
If all of this sounds rather familiar, then perhaps it is proof that – in the Labour party at least – history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Half a century on, and Labour must lose again, for precisely the same reasons. Only a handful of national politicians will claim otherwise. Jeremy Corbyn and his sidekick John McDonnell, because they cannot admit otherwise; and Theresa May, because her focus-group friendly ‘strong and stable’ mantra only really works in opposition to the threat of a bungling ‘coalition of chaos’, led by Corbyn and McDonnell, the Marxist chuckle brothers at the head of a dysfunctional and wholly imaginary band of Europhile ultras, radical environmentalists and Scottish freedom fighters. Labour will lose – perhaps spectacularly.
If defeat is inevitable, then perhaps the more interesting question is what comes next – and, more pertinently, why anybody should pay it any attention. This isn’t just a matter for historians and party hacks. It matters for business, too.
Tension between Labour and the business community has often been overstated. Whatever has been said in public, the party has generally at least attempted to keep a channel open to enterprise, large and small. In private meetings, ‘roundtable’ policy discussions, events and speeches, or party conference dinners, Labour’s leaders have found business a useful sounding board. On a local level, MPs value the companies which drive the local economy; and at a national level, they crave the approval of the big boys – the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce. The business community, for its part, has always recognised that Labour will inevitably govern from time to time, and that constructive engagement may at least curb some of the party’s wilder ideas on executive pay or taxation.
But there’s no disguising the fact that Corbyn’s regime has seen a precipitous decline in these relationships. The party leadership has made it abundantly clear that it has no time for the behind-closed-doors policy discussions favoured by Blair, Brown and to a lesser extent Ed Miliband. The drinks have dried up, the CBI has long since stopped pretending it’s interested, and the optimistically branded conference ‘business forum’ makes for an annual ghost town.
Given all of this, it’s not unreasonable for business to ask: ‘What’s the point?’ Why lobby Labour, then? It’s a tough sell, but by my calculation there are at least three good reasons not to give up the ghost, even after the impending cull.
For a start – barring an absolutely unprecedented catastrophe – after June 8th Labour will still take its place formally as Her Majesty’s Opposition, with all of the constitutional perks that come with that status. The limelight of Prime Minister’s Questions, the first right of response in the national press, the weekly Opposition Day debate: Corbyn has used them ineptly, if at all, but there is no reason why they cannot be restored under the more competent leadership of an Yvette Cooper or a Keir Starmer.
The party will also maintain the Chairmanship of a good number of the Commons’ powerful Select Committees. As the influence of the leadership has waned, Labour’s big beasts have adopted these bodies as a means of their own to attack the Government. Hilary Benn’s Brexit Committee will have a powerful role in shaping the settlement Theresa May reaches in Europe. Cooper and Chuka Umunna have used the Home Affairs Committee to amplify Labour’s traditional messages on social policy. And woe betide any business failing to give an adequate account of itself before Meg Hillier’s Public Accounts Committee.
Beyond Westminster, there’s life in the old dog yet – even if some traditional northern Labour citadels are beginning to crumble. In Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham, ‘Metro Mayors’ for Manchester and Liverpool respectively, the party possesses regional kingpins with powers in planning, policing and budgeting designed to rival those of Sadiq Khan, the beneficiary of Labour’s continued dominance in London.
In lobbying, as in life, it’s often the case that the harder it seems, the greater the prize. Labour has been here before – in 1931, 1959 and 1987. It must lose this time around. Not even Diane Abbott’s creative mathematics could deliver a plausible scenario in which Jeremy Corbyn takes the keys to Number 10 on the 9th June. But it will bounce back. And when it does, relationships struck up in the party’s darkest days will flourish. Politicians, as they say, are like elephants. They may be thick-skinned and occasionally short-sighted, but they never forget.