Thursday, July 05, 2007

Labour – ‘the natural party of business’

This is one of those moments in history when the clouds of confusion begin to lift and it becomes easy to see how the land lies. Blowing away the clouds is John Hutton, the man in charge of the newly created Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. According to Hutton, Tory Leader David Cameron’s alleged weak support for business provides “a major opportunity for Labour” because “we want to be the natural party of business”. It is difficult to imagine a clearer mission statement for the all-new New Labour regime under Gordon Brown. And just in case you are in any doubt, Hutton adds: “This is not a rebranding… It’s a serious attempt to redesign across government how we work with business.”

In a bizarre reversal of historical roles, Hutton contrasted the Tory pledge to extend flexible working rights to all parents of under-18s with the new government’s more cautious approach. “In the whole debate about more employment regulation, you have to be mindful of the costs to British business,” he said. “You’ve got to be very careful and always take into account the impact and burden on business.” Hutton will be working closely with Sir Digby Jones, former Confederation of British Industry director general with a long history of opposing trade unions and their rights. Jones has been made a Lord by Gordon Brown and brought into the government as minister for trade.

And the trade union response? Jack Dromey is deputy general secretary of the Transport & General section of the new 2 million strong union Unite, which is still affiliated to New Labour. Dromey, who is married to deputy leader Harrriet Harman, has written a column in the Financial Times, trade journal of investment bankers and city traders. The union wants private equity takeovers to be included within the scope of Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment (TUPE) regulations which partially protect workers transferred from the public to the private sector. Fat chance! New Chancellor Alistair Darling has already ruled out an immediate clampdown on tax privileges used by the private equity industry, fearing they might have undesirable effects on the “absolutely critical” role of the City.

And then there’s Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, who says that many trade unionists are disillusioned with Labour and fed up with the government's record. "I know that because I am one of them," he told the delegates at the union's annual conference in Brighton. Woodley used his keynote address to launch a demagogic attack on the Blair government. "For the first time in my life I am seeing the sort of social divisions, the sort of wealth gap, here in our own country that I saw in other parts of the world when I was a teenager in the merchant navy.” He added: "Let Tony Blair's government be the last Labour government which let the gap between rich and poor widen. Let it be the last Labour government which boasted about the strength of its anti-union laws. Let it be the last Labour government which blocked social legislation from Europe - yet screamed blue murder if the priority of free competition is questioned.” But Woodley had another, much more disingenuous message. Delegates were told that there was now a chance to develop a "positive new agenda" under Brown's leadership. There is not a shred of evidence in favour of this deceitful argument. What Woodley and other union leaders refuse to accept is that the party founded by the labour movement has been transformed into the party of choice for big business, just as Hutton boasts.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

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