Business Overtures towards Labour May Only Flatter to Deceive
Rodgers, Peter, The Independent (London, England)
Adair Turner, the CBI director-general, is balancing precariously on a wobbly high wire labelled political neutrality. Next week, when industrialists gather for their annual conference in Birmingham, politicians from both parties will be making a determined attempt to shake him off.
There are bound to be further destabilising manoeuvres by Mr Turner's own members, worried that their organisation is helping Tony Blair to look like Prime Minister-in-waiting. Mr Blair will be giving the first political speech by either main party at the conference.
It is hard to overstate the irritation of Conservative Cabinet ministers with the CBI for saying so publicly that the policy gap between the parties has narrowed, and for paying Labour the compliment of taking it so seriously. Business had better recognise its own self-interest and wake up before it's too late, one Cabinet minister was muttering darkly earlier this week. The pre-election campaign to persuade business to come back off the fence will begin in earnest in Birmingham.
Mr Turner believes that Labour has moved comfortingly closer to the Conservatives on a number of issues affecting business, including macroeconomic policy, possibly on taxation and certainly on investment incentives. He sees little serious difference of philosophy between the two parties on the micro-policies promoted by the Department of Trade and Industry or Michael Heseltine's competitiveness programme, where Labour and Tory rhetoric disguises the fact that half the time each side claims the other side is pinching its best ideas.
The clearest differences are on the minimum wage - which the CBI flatly opposes - and Labour's desire to abandon the Government's opt-out on the Social Chapter. Even there, the CBI objection is not so much to the Continental paraphernalia of works councils - multinational members already cope with that and much more - but the risk that the Social Chapter could be used to smuggle in other costlier burdens.
Set against that balanced appreciation of Labour policy, warts and all, Mr Adair has no choice but to reflect the views of many of his senior - and largely Tory - members, who do not trust the Labour Party's ability to deliver its industry-friendly promises. Nothing personal, Tony, but will you be able to keep to it under the stress and pressures of government?
Hence Mr Turner's careful balancing act. He says: "I don't think we have any choice but to state the facts of where we stand and our priorities, and then comment on the policies of the Government and the Labour opposition as they line up against our priorities. …