Is Miliband on a moral crusade?

The Labour leader insists he's not anti-business - but his speech attacked everyone from hedge funds to celebrities...

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012
Is Ed Miliband anti-business or, as he put it this morning, merely ‘anti-business as usual’? Decide for yourself: the Labour leader gave his long-awaited conference speech yesterday, attacking (among others), celebrity culture, those living on benefits and ‘fast-buck capitalists’. He added that to create a more equal society, Government needs to punish ‘predators’, and reward ‘producers’. In other words, manufacturers, exporters and the creative industries need to be given more help, while those dastardly hedge funds and any business owned by a private equity firm should be regarded with a deep suspicion.

Miliband’s message was clear: that he’s moving away from the idea, as championed by Thatcher and Tony Blair, that markets should be allowed total freedom. ‘In every generation, there comes a moment when we need to change the way we do things. This is one of the those moments,’ he said, to rapturous applause. He added that Britain’s future ‘will not be built on credit default swaps but on creative industries, not low wages and high finance, but low carbon and high-tech, not financial engineering, but real engineering.’

It’s clear that Labour also sees the wage gap between the lower and upper echelons of businesses as significant. Thus, under Labour, all remuneration committees would be forced to include ‘at least one’ employee, he said. And on top of that, there will be tax breaks - and greater favour from Government procurers - for businesses that train apprentices.

Is Miliband taking a rather Disneyfied view of things? Imagining a world in which manufacturers - the likes of Jaguar Land Rover, for example - are the heroes, and private equity firms looking to make a fast buck and the businesses they back become the villains and their henchmen. Obviously, though, it’s not as straightforward as that: take, for example, venture capital – the provision of start-up finance is absolutely vital to future economic growth, and yet it is a branch of the dreaded private equity sector.

Or look at Southern Cross, the care homes group which went bust earlier this year. As Robert Peston points out today, greater penalties for private equity wouldn’t have helped save the firm, because by the time it went out of business, it was publicly listed - despite the fact that most of the mistakes were made by the private equity backers that owned it before it went public. So while Miliband’s ideas are nice in principle, it’s hard to create a black-and-white rule about what’s morally superior, and what isn’t.

As an aside, there’s also the point that all this moral crusading rings a little hollow, when set against the fact that even as we speak, Labour is currently trying to negotiate a £1m donation from former tax exile Andrew Rosenfeld, a property tycoon who has only recently come back to the UK after five years living in Geneva. Although to be fair all of the main parties have this kind of skeleton rattling about in the closet, it does make it harder to take them seriously on the subject – after all, it was only last week that Miliband said he’d like to crack down on tax avoidance. ‘Anti-business as usual’, indeed...

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