Over the course of the last parliament the Labour party made several attempts to create a new narrative on the economy, and to stimulate a debate around the role of business within that narrative. Phrases such as ‘responsible capitalism’ and ‘pro-business, but not pro-business as usual’ were the watchwords. But they failed to gain traction, and the broad perception across the British electorate on 7 May was that the Labour party was lacking competence on the economy, and was somehow ‘anti-business’.
Our failure to position ourselves as a pro-business party is of fundamental importance to our overall electoral credibility. It is clear that Labour will never return to government if we are unable to challenge and overcome the view that we are a party that sees ‘profit’ as a dirty word.
In order to relaunch ourselves as a pro-business party we must first and foremost settle on a phrase that encapsulates our approach and credentials. In my view this phrase could be ‘partners for a new kind of growth’. By adopting such a strapline we would be sending the following messages:
- We place partnership at the heart of everything we do. We know that government, business, finance and the trade union movement must work closely together, if we are to tackle the huge structural challenges facing the United Kingdom economy;
- We believe in the market economy, as it delivers growth, and growth has lifted millions out of poverty;
- But we seek to build a new kind of growth that is based on three key drivers, namely People, Planet and Profit;
- Our new kind of growth will also be founded on the reinvention of the UK’s corporate and industrial relations culture. We will place long-termism at the heart of the former, and constructive cooperation at the heart of the latter.
Second, we must radically deepen and broaden relationships between the party and the business community, as there can be little doubt that over the last five years these have deteriorated. To some extent this deterioration has been caused by differences over policy, but the fundamental problem has been the ‘mood music’. We simply have not done enough to engage with the private sector at a strategic level, from blue chip through to SMEs, start-ups and social entrepreneurs. I would therefore suggest that we create a ‘vanguard’ of 10-15 business leaders who share our progressive values and are ready to co-create our new policy platform. Partners for a new kind of growth: the clue is in the name – the concept must, by definition, be developed and rolled out in partnership with the relevant stakeholders. If it is simply something that we dream up inside the Westminster bubble, then it will surely fail. Let’s reach out to the business community, bring them to the table, and co-create our new policy platform with them.
The prevailing organisational culture of the UK’s corporations is in urgent need of change. There is too much short-termism – what Hillary Clinton calls ‘quarterly capitalism’ – with the delivery of fast-buck profits to shareholders taking precedence over all other considerations. Many say that this is just a fact of life, but my time at the World Economic Forum taught me that the business community is changing. I saw the emergence of a relatively small, but growing, group of business leaders who understand that there is a need for a more balanced commitment to people, planet and profit.
This shift in the corporate mindset is a golden opportunity for the Labour party, as it represents a confluence of progressive agendas. Let us hope that we can grasp it, engage with the vanguard of business leaders who ‘get it’, and together with them become partners for a new kind of growth.