To those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, there’s something odd about politics now. It’s that no main party is, or seems to want to be, the “party of business”.
What I mean is that back then, the Tories were emphatically on the side of business, exemplified by Thatcher’s union-bashing and talk of “management’s right to manage”. In the 90s Labour – first under John Smith and then under Blair – devoted immense effort to trying to get business onside via the prawn cocktail offensive.
Elections then were won and lost by chasing the business vote.
Things have changed. In taking the UK out of the EU against the wishes of most major companies, the Tories can no longer claim to be the party of business. And Theresa May’s talk of getting “tough on irresponsible behaviour in big business” and of “unscrupulous bosses” suggests little desire to become so.
You might think this presents Labour with an open goal. It would be easy to present policies such as a national investment bank, more infrastructure spending and anti-austerity as being pro-business.
But there seems little desire to do this. Why not?
A good reason is that political parties should not be pro-business. Pro-business policies can often protect incumbent firms at the expense of consumers. Governments should instead promote competition, which denies businessmen an easy life and high profits.
What’s more, some “business interests” are in fact a desire for unjustifiable power. Kalecki pointed out back in 1943 that businesses opposed sensible fiscal policy because it made employment less dependent upon business “confidence”, thus removing a source of capitalist power. The point broadens. Some businesses are opposed to worker directors and some employment rights not because they are inefficient but because they undermine their power.
No political party is, or should be, the party of Mike Ashley or Philip Green.
But there’s something else. Voters chose Brexit despite knowing that it was against the wishes of most major businesses. Brexit wasn’t just a vote against political and intellectual elites, but against business elites too. Perhaps, then – in sharp contrast to the 80s and 90s – being on the side of business is no longer a vote-winner.
In theory, this could be a very good thing, as it might facilitate policies that are pro-market and egalitarian. I fear, instead, though that it might simply lead to a populist pandering to grievances.