We need a ‘prawn cocktail’ offensive for the 21st century – a ‘scallops and celeriac purée’ offensive, a ‘baked figs and goats cheese’ offensive – anyway, you get my point. In the 1980s and 1990s, energetic Labour spokespeople led by then City minister Tony Blair toured the private dining rooms of the City trying to decontaminate the Labour brand with leading business people. Their success was part of the foundation of New Labour economic and electoral success in the next 20 years.
The task now is more wide-ranging, but equally significant for future policy and electoral success. It is to put the policy flesh onto the skeleton of ‘one nation banking’ and ‘responsible capitalism’ outlined by Ed Miliband in recent months. It is also to ensure that we don’t find ourselves in 2015 in the place that David Miliband reminded us about in his New Statesman piece this week when he said: ‘At the last election not a single major business endorsed Labour, and we cannot afford that again.’
I confess to having been sceptical about the language of ‘predators and producers’ that Ed used in his conference speech last September. However, there is no doubt that he has created the ground that both Cameron and Clegg have subsequently moved onto. The challenge now is to avoid the trap that David Cameron seems to be falling into. His nudge and a wink to strip Fred Goodwin of this knighthood and to reduce Stephen Hester’s bonus are populist but lack substance and have prompted a business backlash. Ed recognised this danger in his understandably overshadowed speech last Friday and rightly called these events the beginning, not the end, of the debate
This week, Labour will press on with its debate in parliament demanding changes to the bonus culture and reinstating the bank bonus tax. Calling this vote is credited with forcing Stephen Hester to give up his bonus. These type of parliamentary set pieces are one of the few tools that oppositions have to grab the initiative – it has certainly worked in this case. But the other opportunity in opposition is to carefully think through the response to new challenges, to build alliances, to listen and reflect – away from the day to day pressure of government. That must be the task for our new ‘prawn cocktail’ offensive.
There are plenty of people with experience and interesting things to say who will want to be part of moving on from the witch hunt to the reform. On the same day I heard both Sir Philip Hampton and Nicola Horlick expressing concern about rewards in the financial sector. Major manufacturing CEOs in this country have long felt that neither the banking system nor the coalition takes them seriously. It’s not just the economic climate which stifles innovation and growth among small businesses.
Many party members and supporters will have much to contribute to the business policy review already announced, but we must go beyond those who already support us. I want to see Ed, Ed, Chuka and Rachel on the telly, but I also want them to be in private dining rooms across the City and beyond – making the contacts, generating the policy ideas and building the consensus which will translate into a serious new business and industrial policy for the next Labour government. Bon appétit.
Jacqui Smith is former home secretary and writes the Monday Politics column for Progress
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