Ex Number 10 insider: The relationship between business and politics is changing

And other takeaways from party conference season.

by The Secret Brexiter
Last Updated: 03 Oct 2019

In the 1980s, the Conservative Party successfully portrayed itself as the party of business, with Labour as the party of the unions, but in the mid 90s, John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown copied from the Tories’ playbook, leading to a broadly pro-business consensus in Westminster that lasted for a generation. 

The defining feature of modern politics - a raging against the elite, of which both Brexit and Corbynism are consequences - has changed that. So while many businesses understandably look to Westminster for answers on the Brexit question, there are other trends that will arguably have longer-term implications for the relationship between business and politics in this country. 

Indeed, both the Conservatives and Labour struck a relatively cautious note on Brexit in their party conferences, the former so as not to offend the EU - having made surprisingly constructive overtures for a solution to the Irish backstop - and the latter as it tries to tread the razorwire tightrope between its metropolitan and northern voters. (The Lib Dems went for the throat, of course, but they’re betting their farm in the Chilterns on capturing the Remain vote, so that’s understandable.)

Instead, both main parties sought to appeal to their bases in areas beyond Brexit, often with ideas floated at fringe events (e.g. Sajid Javid’s hint of cutting inheritance tax), many of which could have deep implications for the business environment in the UK, from Labour’s embrace of nationalisation, union powers and workers on boards, to the Tories’ public service spending announcements, no doubt designed to woo northern voters frustrated by Brexit.

There are two major trends business should take note of: the end of austerity (who’ll pay?) and the drive to reduce inequality, both of which are here to stay, regardless of who wins the next election. It’s notable that Labour sought to counter the Conservatives' people vs Parliament narrative with their own people vs the elite attack on private schools - we’ll raise your 52 per cent with 93 of the electorate who attended a state school.

This should be seen as an opportunity for British businesses, not a burden: the Sutton trust produced a report in June revealing that 39 per cent of the UK elite went to a private school; the ONS has shown repeatedly that the UK is a laggard in relation to productivity; it doesn’t take a huge leap to imagine that they’re related, and a buccaneering, free-trade Britain will do better if it has access to 100 per cent of its talent, rather than just 7 per cent. 

If they don’t accept this view, they can expect policies pushing for greater equality from governments of any flavour.

For more on this idea, read this interview with Justine Greening, who explains how a lot of MPs have started to see business as a problem to be fixed

Image credit: Andrew Aitchison / In Pictures via Getty Images

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