ANALYSIS: PARTY CONFERENCE; Blair’s bid to boost business interests

This year’s Labour Party conference has a bigger business presence than ever before, but it is not always clear what either side hopes to gain from such alliances

This year’s Labour Party conference has a bigger business presence than

ever before, but it is not always clear what either side hopes to gain

from such alliances



The Christmas lights are already up outside what is likely to be

Labour’s last conference before the general election. Expectations are

high and security is tight.



Where once a business suit stuck out like sore thumb, these days it is

the slovenly hacks who are the odd ones out among the designer suits of

the party workers and prospective Parliamentary candidates. As for the

business people themselves - they fit in like they were born New Labour.



But is New Labour a party they can do business with? As Stephen

Lawrence, corporate communications manager for Sea Containers -

exhibiting for the first time this year - points out: ‘If it were not

for the exhibitions the cost of staging the conference would be fairly

high... It’s life blood that [business] people are here’.



Labour has been assiduously wooing business ever since Blair took over

the leadership with initiatives like the Industry Forum - an independent

talking shop set up three years ago. Many, like Jane Clarkson, public

policy manager at Mercury Communications, are convinced it has been a

worthwhile exercise -allowing businesses to have at least some input

into the policy making process. She cites competition policy as one area

in which Labour has taken heed of businesses concerns.



With the ‘Road to the Manifesto’ and its business equivalent, ‘New

Opportunities for Business’, out now, the Industry Forum’s work would

seem to be over although Labour has promised to continue with it if it

gets into power.



By conference, most of the nitty gritty of policy making has already

been done. ‘Anybody who comes to Labour or any party conference thinking

this is a place for policy making is going to be sadly disabused,’ says

Tony Page, a director of GJW and one of five from the firm at the

conference. ‘It never has been - it is about policy ratification - it’s

the end of a process’.



Yet a record number of businesses have booked a stand at Blackpool. With

the cost of booking a stand, manning it and paying for accommodation

estimated at around pounds 10,000 - it is not cheap.



Nick DeLuca, a director of lobby firm APCO, says he is generally cynical

about the impact a presence at party conference can have on policy

making. But, as he points out, for ‘certain businesses which face

particular threats - like the utilities with the windfall tax - it’s the

last chance to make a pitch to the party in the widest sense.’ Mike

Craven, managing director of Market Access, points out that conference

gives a lot of businesses the chance to talk to ordinary delegates.



For organisations with a topical issue to fight, the conference fringe

can also be a real draw. As Page says: ‘At many of the meetings there

is a much more genuine debate. Front benchers will expose themselves to

dialogue with delegates in a way that can’t take place on the conference

floor.’



But the primary reason for businesses being here is just old-fashioned

networking. ‘Because everyone is in one place at one time for a whole

week you can actually replicate your entire year’s contact programme

again in one week,’ says Clarkson. ‘It’s also useful to talk to ordinary

members of the party, to see what the feeling at grass roots level is

about the direction of policy because that might give you pointers

towards the future.’



Labour’s own service to business is certainly improving. Two years ago

the party’s first corporate day was panned as being disorganised. This

year 30 chairmen, chief executives and corporate affairs executives from

the likes of Brown and Root, PPP, Bristol-Myers Squibb and the

Engineering Training Authority are paying up to pounds 400 per head for

the privilege of meeting frontbench spokespeople and hearing the

leader’s speech.



Clarkson for one is dubious about its usefulness: ‘The number of people

the chairman or chief executive needs to see is fairly small and we

could probably set those meetings up in London rather than bringing him

up to Blackpool’.



Labour’s relentless assault on the business community has also produced

something of a backlash. As DeLuca says: ‘They have created all these

different formats to have a dialogue with business. You could argue a

lot of these gestures are about bonding rather than tangible

contributions to the policy process which a cynic would say is still

happening behind closed doors in the office of the leader.’



It is also not always clear who business people should deal with. As

Craven admits: ‘there are too many people in [the party] with business

in the title - it can be confusing.’



To tackle this the party has set up a new business relations unit - led

by Shadow telecommunications minister Geoff Hoon - to provide the

missing link between the leader’s office, the party and Industry Forum.

A key role of the unit is to get business people to endorse Labour.



‘We don’t expect to get businesses to come out and say vote Labour, but

they will talk about aspects of policy they agree with,’ explains one

Labour lobbyist.



But anyone who thinks that Labour is so desperate for business support

that it is a pushover for the lobbyists need only look at Gordon Brown’s

outburst in the summer in which he accused the utilities of trying to

sabotage his windfall tax. As Page says: ‘[Our clients] know there’s

going to be a utility tax, they are being advised that it would be daft

to take it head on and try to argue against it... they should be looking

to make representations as far as possible on the application, and

working with the party.’



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