Opinion: Leader - Business appears no dirtier than politics

Reports that some of New Labour's closest friends in the public affairs business gathered last week for the first general pow-wow about how to build relations with business in the run-up to the election next year should come as no surprise.

Those involved have closed ranks, and now play down the importance of the meeting. This meeting, they say, was just a few mates gathering for a drink and to chew the fat - nothing to see here, move along please.

Oh yeah? People like Mike Craven, Ian Lindsley and Colin Byrne are, first and foremost, fierce commercial competitors. The suggestion they would organise a general catch-up as former party colleagues is ludicrous.

And if the New Labour loyalists who form the backbone of the PA business have not decided that winning corporate support will be a crucial component of the party's re-election, they should have done. It would certainly be a break with the tradition of close party-business links of recent years, which has seen lobbyists drift back to HQ to do anything from staffing the press office to stuffing envelopes.

The consensus among rivals in the Tory camp is that just as the election is unwinnable without a fair wind from the media, it is made harder by a corporate establishment that needs to be battled rather than co-opted into the cause. Michael Howard seems to understand this, as revealed by his own attempts to improve relations with the private sector in recent weeks.

Labour understands it just as well, so why the coyness? Mainly because the party has been burnt before on the issue of business links. Stories of shady deals, of policies changed as swiftly as a large cheque clears have a deep and painful resonance.

But the solution to this problem is not to go quiet. It is to make the case as assertively as possible - business relations are nothing to be ashamed of; policy is best made if it takes into account the views of those that will be affected by it and firms have a right to be heard.

The private sector is done a disservice by its friends in politics being ashamed of associating with it.

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