Labour's big offer to business - Europe

Ed Miliband, Leader of Britain"s Labour Party Image copyright European Photopress Agency

I am often asked what the business community wants from politicians.

A period of silence, is an answer many chief executives would give with a smile and a roll of the eyes.

Many businesses crave nothing more than consistency and certainty, so they can get on with running their companies with no nasty, political surprises.

In an election campaign that is a pretty forlorn hope, given that politicians over the next six weeks will be hoping to be seen as people of action, announcing new policies and what they hope to change.

For many businesses, general election campaigns are times of uncertainty.

In/Out referendum

Sitting next to the European head of one of the largest private equity houses in the world recently, he told me that some investment decisions in the UK were "on hold" due to the general election.

Today, Labour launches its business manifesto.

Beyond plans for a new infrastructure commission, freezing business rates and backing a British Investment Bank, is the big offer for business.

Labour will not hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union (EU), meaning, the party argues, that one uncertainty will be removed from the risk register of the business community.

"There could be nothing worse for our country or for our great exporting businesses than playing political games with our membership in Europe," Ed Miliband will say at a speech at Bloomberg later this morning.

Uncertainty

"I want to be clear about what is at stake in this election for British business. David Cameron promises a referendum on an arbitrary timetable.

Economy

Labour

Main pledges

  • Balance the books by cutting the deficit every year, with a surplus on the current budget and national debt falling in the next Parliament
  • No additional borrowing for new spending
  • Raise minimum wage to more than £8 an hour by 2019
  • Apprenticeship for every school leaver who gets the grades

"It is a recipe for two years of uncertainty in which inward investment will drain away, two years of chaos in which businesses will not be able to plan for the future."

The Conservative response is to point out that many businesses support a referendum on EU membership and that a public vote is a vital part of the reform agenda.

"I think this [a referendum] is the moment Britain stops sleepwalking towards the exit - that's what's happening now," Mr Cameron told the Financial Times two weeks ago.

"The British public can see what's happening, that Europe is changing in front of their eyes and they haven't been asked about it."

Many large businesses will certainly welcome Labour's commitment to Britain remaining in Europe.

Labour has quoted a number of pro-EU company leaders in the full page advert the party has taken out in the FT today.

"We would be devastated - as a company that loves London and wants to be in London - if Britain were out of Europe," is the view of Andrew Mackenzie, chief executive of the mining giant, BHP Billiton.

Pro-business

My Labour sources were being very careful to explain last night that the business leaders quoted in the advert were not endorsing Labour.

They were simply being quoted to show the strength of feeling about Europe.

What is interesting is that Labour has chosen the first day of the election campaign to focus on an area - business - some see as a weakness for the party.

Stefano Pessina, the acting chief executive of Walgreens Alliance Boots, lit the "anti-business" touch paper for Labour when he said last month that it would be a "catastrophe" if Labour politicians acted in government as they spoke in opposition.

With promises to intervene in the energy and banking markets and increase the top rate of tax to 50p, some business leaders are wary of Labour.

And on Europe, those more sceptical about EU membership argue that the business community should not be viewed as a homogeneous, pro-European block.

"Labour's attempts to portray opposition to an EU referendum as pro-business is as misguided as it is cynical," said Robert Oxley, campaign director of Business for Britain.

"Just like voters, business leaders back a referendum as it's the best way to secure meaningful change to our relationship with the EU."

Mr Miliband hopes that Labour's pro-EU policy will be a win with many businesses and is clear dividing line with the Conservatives.

It will be for businesses - and voters - to decide if that is the case.

UPDATE 11:45

Oh dear. It looks like Labour's much trumpeted business manifesto advert in the Financial Times concerning membership of the European Union has ruffled a few feathers. Siemens has told me that the party "over-stepped the mark" when they quoted Juergen Maier, the chief executive of Siemens UK, in the advert.

Mr Maier is quoted as saying: "The prospect of a referendum that may or may not happen, at a date yet to be decided upon, with a choice between two unknown options, is profoundly worrying for business leaders."

Siemens does not dispute the quote. What it does dispute is its use in a political advert.

"We did not give them permission [to use the quote]. We did not know about this," a spokeswoman said. "We are an a-political organisation."

Siemens will be contacting Labour to express their displeasure.

Chukka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, said on the Today programme this morning that the business leaders quoted in the advert were "aware of what we are doing".

"The comments they have made are a matter of public record," he said.

Well, one business at least would dispute whether they were aware about the advert.

The spokeswoman said: "We were consulted about Juergen's quote but not as part of a specific Labour Party campaign as the advertisement could imply.'

It seems that Mr Maier's quotes might not be appearing again any time soon in Labour campaign literature.

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