New Labour? Lessons for business from the party conference

How should business engage with Labour and Corbyn’s “new” politics?

It’s become a  bit of a lazy cliche for some commentators to say that Corbyn is unelectable in a General Election. However, before writing Corbyn off businesses should consider the following.

First, he is likely to run strong, single issue campaigns which are popular with the party faithful. His leadership election shows he does not have a problem mobilising support for those campaigns from leftwing activists, using traditional tactics like rallies as well as digital and social media campaigning. As Leader of the Opposition he will clearly have the power to raise issues up the media and political agenda.

Some of these campaigns may be directly targeted at business practice. Corbyn demonstrated at conference that he is not afraid to be combative and call out individual businesses which he perceives to be acting irresponsibly, particularly in terms of their tax affairs. Expect more not less of this in the coming months.

Unlike Miliband, Corbyn also has serious leftwing competition in Parliament in the shape of the new SNP intake of MPs. His election as leader comes at a critical time in the electoral cycle in Scotland and the Scottish Parliamentary elections next year are already a focus for him. This dynamic could mean that any issue Corbyn runs with could be picked up, developed and amplified by the SNP, who will be seeking to stay ahead of Corbyn as champions of the left and establishing themselves as the only effective anti-austerity alternative to Cameron’s Conservatives. And if anyone is able to generate media noise, it’s Alex Salmond.

This leaves open the potential for some pretty noisy political campaigning which could impact on business in the short term and which businesses need to prepare themselves for.

In the longer term some have commented that Corbyn could either resign, or be pushed out if the polls start to tank prior to the next General Election. However, the future is very uncertain. It’s important to note that we are still in the consensual, “broad church” phase of the new administration where unity takes precedence and Corbyn has made a big play to encourage healthy debate. However, as things progress he may need to resist pressure from some quarters to marginalise and stamp out dissenting voices not aligning with his world view. Questions remain as to how far permanent changes to the party structures will ensure that the left of the party maintains its current dominance in the future. To avoid what Tom Watson has described as ‘charter for internecine strife’, Corbyn’s team has clarified that he is not pushing for mandatory reselections of MPs, which could lead to an organised purge of moderates. However, Corbyn has also acknowledged that if party conference voted in favour of this it could become party policy.

Nevertheless, there are less combative steps which could still represent a permanent step away from the past. Corbyn is looking to encourage registered supporters who voted for him into full members and activists, potentially by offering membership discounts, and he wants to democratise the party policy-making processes, putting more power back to the Party’s annual conference. Angela Eagle, the new Shadow Business Secretary and Chair of the party’s National Policy Forum (NPF), currently leads a review into how policy is made within the Party. The idea of putting greater power back to conference will delight many longstanding party members who felt it was increasingly marginalised through the Blair and Brown years, and sensible moderates are likely support these kinds of moves, within reason.

What does this all mean for business?

First, it is a mistake to assume the new shadow cabinet is uninterested in talking to business. There’s plenty that businesses may not like about Corbyn – including his desire to increase corporation tax and nationalise industry. However, that doesn’t mean there can’t be any areas of consensus which businesses could use to engage Corbyn with the business community and business concerns.

For instance, Corbyn may well be aligned with many businesses on his more positive approach to immigration, and he has now clarified that Labour will campaign to stay in the EU. In his leadership campaign Corbyn aligned himself with the CBI to create a big push on the adult skills ‘emergency’ and set up the Corbyn for Business website, emphasising skills, infrastructure investment, supporting the self-employed and small business, and the green economy. This isn’t to overstate Corbyn’s affection for the private sector – simply to say that there are practical areas where businesses could seek to engage with the new leadership.

Corbyn is in the early stages of shaping his policy, and there are also many shadow ministers and influential backbench MPs who are interested in the fact that Labour appeared too anti-business in the run-up to the last election. The fact is that Corbyn’s huge mandate make it almost impossible for him to be removed by some sort of PLP coup, and sensible businesses will need to start thinking about how to engage positively and early with the Labour frontbench team on some of these issues.

Anyone who is hanging onto the belief that Corbyn is simply a flash in the pan and that Labour will slowly revert to New Labour positions to win elections is underestimating a more fundamental shift. In the long term, whatever eventually comes out of this chaotic and unstable period, it may look pretty different from both Corbynism as it currently stands and Blairism if the Labour Party is to be successful in winning future elections. Businesses need to start considering now not just about how to be influential in Corbyn’s ‘new politics’ but also in this future context.