Monday 27 July 2015

The Conservatives turn against business

The bizarre news stories yesterday morning about entryism into the Labour Party to support Jeremy Corbyn as leader convinces me of at least three things.

First, the Labour Party doesn't trust its own members. Second, the disappearance of their ideological foundations and purpose - some decades ago now - could mean that Labour might go in almost any direction.  Third, we are in one of those peculiar periods when party positions are seriously in flux.

We have Ukip and the Greens - sleeping at the moment - but poised to divide Labour support between them once they come back to life. We have Labour about to divide into two, or possibly three. But the potential shift that nobody really seems to be talking about is the strange way that the Conservative Party is turning against its traditional allies in business.

Joe Zammit-Lucia and I talked about this as a practical possibility before the election in our pamphlet A Radical Politics for Business here.  

We argued that the old relationship between business and conservatism has now broken. Business wants openness to ideas. They want open borders. They want long-term thinking, not the insane short-termism of the political world. They increasingly want education that promotes practical vocations, rather than suppressing them. They want schooling that looks beyond basic skills – important as they are – and which trains people to be entrepreneurial and creative, not just trains them to mind machinery.

None of those attitudes are offered by the current Conservative Party and, although some vestiges of the coalition attitudes remain in the current government, the evidence seems to be that they are prepared to undermine business to make an ideological point.

Why otherwise would you torpedo the progress of a new industry that is hugely important, not just for our own future, but for UK exports? The support for solar and wind was for a specific objective and for a limited period. Yet it has gone.

It can't really be about cutting energy bills because the other measure designed to cut people's energy bills - the low carbon homes initiative - has also been scrapped, to the horror of the volume housebuilders which have been gearing up for it.  

Nor has Hinkley Point nuclear power station, which is set to seriously increase bills for the foreseeable future, yet been cancelled - though it seems likely that it will be.

The damage to solar energy is limited. The cuts are regarded as necessary because solar is now so popular that it has exceeded the money set aside by the coalition.  It may well be that, for other reasons, solar will carry on growing - but what an opportunity to lead the world missed.

I'm not sure also that the perverse decision - which I hope will be challenged in the courts - to lift the ban on bee-killing chemical neonicotinoids falls into the same category. It is a direct threat to the emerging local food and organics sector.

What appears to be happening is that the government has taken against a number of new industries, rather as the Labour Party used to do in the 1970s, and is quite happy to torpedo those investors and undermine confidence in them if they can.

It will take some time for this to be clear one way or another. It will take even longer for it to be widely recognised, though the euro referendum will provide an opportunity to bring this shift to the forefront of people's minds. But the implications for politics are important - because it may be that business will once again be represented most successfully by a left of centre political force, dedicated to small enterprise, entrepreneurs and setting business free to challenge monopolies.

That sounds unlikely, but that was the case throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and it could be again. The question is whether Jeremy Corbyn or Tim Farron will be the one who can rise to the occasion.

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