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
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
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
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.’