Nick Laitner: How can business engage with a Corbyn-led Labour Party?
Lobbying efforts will need to be more targeted than in the past if Jeremy Corbyn becomes Labour leader
It is now an article of faith among most commentators and Labour MPs that Jeremy Corbyn will be the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition in a few short weeks.
This may not be as nailed-on a certainty as many think – it’s not been a great year for conventional wisdom in Westminster. Nevertheless, those of us whose business is politics have to start thinking hard about what a hard-left Labour leadership means for the business environment in the UK, and how to engage with the new Corbynist leadership on the opposition benches.
On the surface, a Corbyn-led Labour Party would hardly appear the most friendly or tolerant towards business or those who lobby on its behalf. Looking at the public statements of Corbyn and his most ardent supporters, big business and commercial lobbyists are viewed as on a par with Blairites and Zionists as one step up from the antichrist (if we are lucky).
In terms of what he actually stands for, Corbyn’s policy prescriptions – from energy company renationalisation to economy-imperilling “QE for investment” – are not things that business should be relaxed about. And investors will understandably get the jitters when they see this man, more used to speaking in front of banners of Mao and Stalin, at the dispatch box for PMQs every week.
So what does this mean for engagement with a Corbyn-led Labour party? Most commercial organisations, engaging on issues that matter to them, will clearly be treated with a greater level of hostility than they are used to among the Opposition frontbenches, particularly if Corbyn were to pack his shadow Government with lefty fellow-travellers. That does not mean that businesses should cease to engage with shadow Ministers, only that engagement must be more targeted than in the past. There will be some experienced advisers at the top of Corbyn’s team, like Simon Fletcher, who are used to interacting with stakeholders in suits as well as sandals.
And the power structures within the Labour Party is likely to look very different in the coming years. Given that Corbyn has voted against the Labour whip more frequently than David Cameron (astonishing but true), and currently only holds the active support of around 10% of his fellow Labour MPs, it is likely that the Party will be more divided and disloyal than ever.
This means that there may not be such a thing as a monolithic ‘opposition vote’ to campaign for (or against), but that picking off individual MPs and factions within the Party will be crucial to ensure support for an issue or policy. The realist wing of the party (led by Chuka, Liz and Tristram, among others) will become a safe space for those for whom business is not a dirty word. This moderate grouping – surely the future leadership of any Labour Party that survives the next few years in tact – will be vital in providing the necessary balance on the Labour benches.
And this is where the Government’s tiny majority becomes both a blessing and a curse for business. Already, Cameron and Osborne are making light of their miniscule majority and governing as if they have a landslide mandate. A divided opposition is likely to make this even easier for them. Any Government that doesn’t need to be concerned with scrutiny inevitably produces bad laws, which can often hit companies where it hurts – just ask pensions firms or investors in renewable energy if they think business shouldn’t be concerned about an untrammelled ‘pro enterprise’ Government implementing its policy agenda.
So lobbyists should not assume that an anti-capitalist shambles on the Opposition benches will mean an easy ride from Government – vigilance and engagement with Ministers, advisers and officials will be just as crucial as ever. Those of us whose job is to represent the views of organisations in and around Westminster will be as busy as ever.
There is one area where businesses and their representatives can relax, however. At least we don’t have to worry about any of his policies actually being implemented – unless his allies in Moscow or Caracas lend him a lot of tanks, Jeremy Corbyn will never be Prime Minister.