Labour Party Conference: Is business back in town?

Labour's largely unexpected General Election showing led to the 'out of power for a generation' predictions being torn up.

It's not just up to the business community to work with Labour, the party has to reciprocate, warns Stuart Thomson
It's not just up to the business community to work with Labour, the party has to reciprocate, warns Stuart Thomson

As a result, businesses realise that engagement with the party, now a potential future government, needs to increase.

Those who put most, if not all of their efforts, into working with the Conservatives have even more catching up to do.

So the Labour Party Conference, instead of being the slightly desolate affairs of recent years, looks vibrant and feels enthused; well, that is amongst the members and activists.

But what about businesses?

The Business Day was said to be sold out and businesses were doubtless glad of the chance to shake hands and chat with members of Labour’s shadow team.

The fringe guide is just that little bit bigger, with the corporate sector sponsoring a range of discussions.

This year the various ‘Labour friends of’ groups are no longer completely dominating the agenda.

The exhibition space is fuller, too, and for the first time, BP had a stand at a Labour conference.

Google and Microsoft are back, although the quality of their stands vary enormously!

The exhibition space, however, is dominated by charities, NGOs, trade unions and several specialist companies doing their best to sell services to attendees.

The busiest stand was probably Momentum’s and it shouldn’t be forgotten that their ‘alternative’ conference is taking place in Brighton as well.

There is certainly a larger corporate presence.

Last year’s Business Reception faced a sparse attendance, with attendees urged to move towards the stage for the speeches and make the room look full. This year’s was much more lively.

However, those businesses in attendance this year haven’t all sent their most senior people.

Many of these are being kept in reserve for next week’s Conservative Party Conference, considered to be a better use of their valuable time.

Whilst business knows that it has to treat Labour as a serious alternative government, it is not quite so clear that the party feels quite the same way about business.

If the party too closely follows an electoral strategy of just waiting for the Tories to fail at delivering a sensible Brexit deal, then policy development risks being sidelined.

There is also only so much state repatriation that some will stomach.

Also, it is unclear whether individual shadow ministers have any real influence. Instead, a carefully and centrally controlled set of policies are the only ones released.

There are fundamental issues of reputation that the party still needs to deal with before many in the business community will wish to be associated with it again, not least it’s continued inability to deal firmly with anti-Semitism.

The reasons for the increased attendance of business at the conference vary.

Some are here more in hope than expectation. Some don’t want to be caught out again taking only one party seriously. A maintenance of political balance is critical for others.

Many only made their decision to come to Labour’s conference after the election result.

Otherwise this conference would have been a sad shadow of former glories, a time when the Labour conference was one of the biggest political events in Europe, if not the world.

So this is a far from strong and stable relationship with business, and Labour needs to remember that it has to work hard at building the relationship as well. It is not all down to business.

Stuart Thomson is head of public affairs at Bircham Dyson Bell

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