Why isn’t Ed Miliband at the British Chambers of Commerce annual conference? Ed Balls tried to defend his boss this morning as he arrived at the event, saying it was ‘getting a bit trivial’ to ask who was attending which conference. The Shadow Chancellor said:
‘Ed Miliband has spoken at this conference a number of times… They’ve got me and Chuka Umunna and this has been tabled and agreed for months and months and months. We’re setting out Labour’s position. As I said it’s the position of me and Ed and Chuka and the whole of the Labour party. Ed has spoken at the conference many times before.’
To be fair to Labour, if Umunna and Balls had been booked in to do this conference months ago, which they would have done, then to swap in Ed Miliband at the last minute because of a row that he hadn’t expected would have garnered far more attention. A party source says that ‘this suggestion is a mixture of the absurd and the ridiculous. Ed Miliband has given 10 speeches to major business conferences since becoming Labour leader including the BCC twice. In two weeks’ time Ed Miliband will be speaking at the EEF and the Tories can’t even be bothered sending a full cabinet minister to speak.’
The row over Labour’s relationship with business was not in the party’s grid. Remember that it was Stefano Pessina who started the fight with his comments in an interview, not Labour suddenly declaring war on the Boots chief.
But then again it was Miliband who decided to spin the battle with Boots out for so long. It was perfectly reasonable to respond to the allegation that a Labour government would be a ‘catastrophe’ for Britain on the Sunday. But then Miliband ratcheted up that response into a row on the Monday with his even more aggressive comments about Pessina not paying his tax during the Sky leaders’ debates. The Labour leader continued the row with his comments about tax avoidance in the Guardian on the Saturday. As I wrote in Sunday’s Observer, not all his colleagues agreed with him that he should be so keen to define himself through battles.
But the other problem is that Labour didn’t quite manage to articulate what it does think on business, and that is a failing for the party when, as Peter Kellner pointed out yesterday, voters do quite like the idea of a party standing up to big business (even though, as he also points out, Labour doesn’t even lead on being the party that best helps employees of those businesses). David Cameron seized his own moment at the conference to liken Miliband to Neil Kinnock, and claim that Gordon Brown and Tony Blair agreed with him ‘that business is the generator of growth’ and that this ‘long-held consensus in British politics is now over’.
As for what Labour’s message to business actually is, well Umunna is speaking now and Balls has already spoken, and focused his energy on Labour’s European policy, which is his colleague Douglas Alexander’s brief but the pledge that Labourites see as their real attraction for businesses. Balls warned that David Cameron was not giving the impression he was serious about Europe:
‘In the end what happens in Europe is people have to decide are you serious, or are you just playing politics. And if our European partners conclude we’re not actually in there for the long-term, trying to win those arguments and find that place for Britain, they will give up on us. And the lesson of European politics is, you never walk out of summits. You don’t go back to your parliament and slag off your European partners. You don’t let them think that in the end you’ve given up, and that you’re thinking about leaving, because if that happens, then you lose influence, and your lose your ability to win arguments. That is what is happening at the moment for Britain. I hear from business people, from the City and more widely all the time, we are being listened to less than we were before. And that is really dangerous.’
Umunna is talking now, and has said that ‘threatening exit from the EU – our largest export market and gateway to the world – is actively damaging and diminishing Britain’s clout in Europe and the world. My own view is that it would be disastrous for British business if we left.’
Both are articulating what they see as Labour’s positive vision for business. Which is much-needed after a week of Miliband defining himself through battles.