As the Labour Party Conference kicks off in Brighton, one question on many commentators’ lips has been whether Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘government in waiting’ now needs to be taken seriously by business.
It’s fair to say that only a year ago this was a party that felt a long way from being close to governing, and you only had to look around the exhibition hall in Liverpool to see that business was focussed more on understanding the Conservative vision for Brexit than they were trying to glean policy from Labour. The Royal Mail was the only significant business presence that I remember seeing exhibiting last year.
This year is a different story. More exhibitors, more sponsors of fringe events, more executives in the bars. This is a conference where businesses are far more present and it’s due in a large part to the result of the General Election. Labour have already shown an ability to influence government policy by forcing the government into an embarrassing climb down on public sector pay caps. The Conservative’s DUP deal has provided opportunities for Labour in opposition.
But should business be concerned about a Labour Party that campaigned for the General Election on a manifesto that called for the renationalisation of water, energy and train operating companies? Unfortunately there are no simple answers and this is why business is more present. They need to understand Labour’s policy making and the extent to which there may be opportunities to engage with the party to provide practical solutions that business can work with.
Of course there will some businesses that cannot stomach trying to engage with a party when the Shadow Chancellor has again taken to the media this morning to restate his ambitions for the renationalisation of assets, but, just as Uber is discovering in London at the moment, progressive businesses cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and assess political risk at a distance.
Perhaps the biggest question for business ahead of conference has been Brexit. After Theresa May’s fairly disastrous speech in Florence and a weekend of dissent in the media from her Foreign Secretary and Chancellor, Labour had a chance to set the record straight on Brexit and to potentially become more attractive to business looking for continued access to the single market. Unfortunately last night it was decided that there would be no vote on a Brexit policy at this conference and instead a statement of policy would be discussed this morning. Brexit is a chance for Labour to win support, a Politico poll this morning suggested 70% of Labour supporters would welcome another vote on EU membership, and this is especially true from business, but rather than grasping this nettle Jeremy Corbyn has chosen to maintain an ambiguous position on Brexit. Perhaps this will be seen to be politically astute, but perhaps this is a missed opportunity to show real leadership.