Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour does have a business problem

Labour does have a problem with business. A serious one. It is not, however, one generated by the leadership. It is a problem with an unreconstructed, irredentist, activist base. Just go to any branch meeting and you will hear crazy, ill-informed anti-business views.

Take landlords, for instance. Anyone would think we were living in the late 19th century from the rhetoric of party members. The housing benefit bill, the unaffordability of housing, the record low construction rate – all caused by evil landlords. No acknowledgment that providing housing is a social food, and that it has been a huge policy achievement to reverse the century long decline in the private rented sector. Just pantomime politics – hissing at landlords.

Not to forget that the only solution is ever proposed is an expensive and failed public sector one. In the case of rented housing it is the tried and found wanting one of building council houses. ‘Let councils borrow money’, comes the cry, conveniently forgetting that they can already. Of course, what is meant is not borrowing, it is really a demand for free money – something that is never paid back. For this is the rub, borrowed money is precisely that – something you have to pay back. Then spending on housing has to compete with other spending on transport, roads, schools and hospitals. That is when private individuals spending their own money on providing home for rent starts to look like a good deal – or at least it should.

But, there is no anti-business madness among our ‘branchies’ (the Australian term fits much better than ‘activist’ since the loudest voices never walk a single street) worse than the ‘renationalise the railways’ madness. The case for privatising the railways has been made many times over – passenger journeys are up massively, services are higher quality (Virgin vs BR is no contest) and investment at record levels. And government can get whatever it wants. What is not to like?


Is Andrew Adonis the heir to Michael Heseltine? I think he might just be. The city renaissance that John Prescott delivered was built on foundations laid by Heseltine – the task forces, garden festivals and urban development corporations were all initiatives that believed in the power of government to change places for the better. The Adonis review ‘Mending the Fractured Economy’ is a black swan event – a report that is not just readable but a page-turner. When the United States Department of Defence came across William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ – the book that coined the phrase ‘cyberspace’ – a senior manger gave it to his staff and said ‘read it, then build it’. I feel the same about Andrew’s work.


There are many people who write about what to when we win the election. Others write about why we cannot and will not win the election. Hardly anyone does what Marcus Roberts, deputy general secretary of the Fabians, has just done and write a practical guide to winning elections – Labour’s Next Majority: A Constituency Guide. Like I said, read it, then build it.


Finally, Jon Cruddas’ RSA speech is well worth a read in full. One thing that jumped out for me was this passage:

A post-industrial economy is taking shape around our advanced manufacturing and the new information and communications technologies. The shift to a services economy is flattening out old, hierarchical command and control structures. Digital technology is unseating whole industries and workforces, and production is becoming more networked and disorganised.

The question is – how can we harness these forces?

There are many ideas out there, and @LabourDigital is drawing them together into a progressive programme. Log on to the website and give us your ideas.


John McTernan is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He writes The Last Word column on Progress and tweets @johnmcternan

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John McTernan

is former chief of staff to the leader of the Scottish Labour party. He is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He tweets @johnmcternan


  • I’m not sure if there are anti business views at branch meetings ,that will over to the public,to give the impression, that hard left grass roots and back benchers would render any business idea Ed, would have as obsolete,but if there is, then Ed should confront this,

    Regarding councils building homes,some councils like a Barking and dagenham ,have the money and the land ,why shouldn’t they build more homes, saying that ,we should never have let it run down, or sold the old ones dirt cheap, as for the trains ,if we had the money, rescuing them from the state they’re in, may appeal to Blairites who want decent services, more than the appeal to the left,who’d call for everything else to be renationalised,but we should point out other privatisations worked,

  • I note on labour list,this article is called waffle, without saying why.i think the trains should be renationalised, but the. Tories will use any criticism,of our supporters who wants them kept in the private sector, as an example of the far left running the party again, and that’ll be electoral suicide

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