Attacking Topshop helps no one
Politics remains a world dominated by white men and I am a BAME woman. Yet possibly the very smallest minority within the Labour party that I belong to is that of members who work in the private sector. This was a point I put to Jeremy Corbyn at Progress annual conference last month, together with a question about how the party reconnects with business.
At the last general election, Labour’s lack of engagement with the private sector seemed to indicate a view of business which hovered somewhere between indifference and outright hostility. This risked alienating the majority of British workers who are employed in private industry. Ironically, in a breakout session at the same conference on BAME voters, one of the reasons cited for Labour’s diminishing appeal to this group was its perceived disdain for commercial ambition – many people from minority ethnic backgrounds aspire to own their own businesses.
My sense is that the lack of private sector representation within the Labour party makes it easier for many members to be inherently suspicious of any organisation that makes a profit, without caring to make a distinction between a more responsible capitalism (as advocated in last December’s edition of Progress magazine) and the current, more irresponsible, kind. It is a basic Labour view that the government needs to intervene when profit is extracted through exploiting workers, damaging the environment, avoiding tax or using monopoly power to suppress competition. We go even further and ask businesses to be responsible citizens: to train a new generation, provide pensions and help people progress through the labour market. In this Labour fundamentally differs from the right, which has a myopic trust that completely unregulated markets will always deliver equitable and beneficial results.
However, when entrepreneurs put their own money and time into enterprises which develop products, create jobs and generate significant tax revenue then there is nothing in Labour’s role as the party of working people which should begrudge them a fairly made profit. Sadiq Khan’s campaign, in which he promised to be the most ‘pro-business mayor’ that the city had seen, demonstrates that enabling business is actually essential to helping working people.
Back at the conference, Corbyn responded to my question by falling back on familiar themes such as the need to raise wages and for more government investment in infrastructure. These are valid aims, but I felt that the overall attitude was one of reluctant tolerance (as towards a boorish relative who needs careful managing when they turn up every year at Christmas) rather than any appreciation of the private sector’s positive role in society and the economy. In the December edition of Progress, Liam Byrne made the key point that Labour needed to look to the private sector for allies in creating a more responsible capitalism, citing figures like Xavier Rolet of the London Stock Exchange and Dominic Barton, formerly of McKinsey, who are willing to work to achieve this. If approached in the right way, Labour will not be left wanting.
Meanwhile, at the same time as Corbyn was speaking, less than a mile away on Oxford Street shadow chancellor John McDonnell had decided to take a more active approach to relations with business by joining a protest over the living wage. He stood alongside masked activists as they hurled smokebombs at Topshop and scuffled with police; ordinary shoppers walked by, bewildered and unimpressed. If Labour really wants to improve the wages of the lowest paid, then the first step is to get a Labour government elected in 2020 and implement a proper living wage in place of George Osborne’s watered-down version. But even on a living wage, many families struggle to afford basic housing costs. A future Labour government needs to work with business to improve productivity and thereby create better-paid jobs. If we believe that yelling and throwing things are more effective ways of engaging with the private sector than genuine partnership, then many voters – just like the Oxford Street shoppers – will go on being bewildered and unimpressed.
Christabel Cooper writes a regular column on the Progress website
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