Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, has said Labour will respond to political attacks from business but stressed the party is not spoiling for a fight or seeking a confrontation with boardrooms.
His remarks appear designed to prevent what he regards as a Tory-inspired attempt to drive a wedge between business and Labour.
Umunna, who like the shadow chancellor Ed Balls has been working to build bridges with mainstream business, is determined to ensure that Labour’s response to attacks by the Conservative peer Lord Rose or the Boots acting chief executive Stefano Pessina does not spin out of control into a fight that the party can only lose.
On Tuesday Rose accused Ed Miliband of being a “1970s throwback”. On Monday the Labour leader hit back at criticism from Pessina by accusing the Boots boss of avoiding tax.
Some senior Labour figures think Miliband’s recent pointed criticism of businessmen will appeal to a public disenchanted with corporate greed and aggressive tax evasion.
They argue that business people, like politicians, are no longer the trusted authority figures they once were, especially if they preach from the safety of tax havens or clothed in thinly disguised Conservative ermine.
But that runs counter to the view of Tony Blair who wrote in his autobiography: “If chief executives say it is Labour that will put the economy at risk, who does the voter believe? Answer: the chief executives.”
Some Conservatives sense that Blair’s view, first set out in 2011, may need updating, and they at the least shift uncomfortably when they hear that the stationers Smythson’s – for which David Cameron’s wife, Samantha, acts as a consultant – has decided to base its tax affairs in Luxembourg.
The London mayor, Boris Johnson, never slow to spot the public mood, described the decision of Boots to up sticks to Switzerland to save tax as disappointing.
Umunna told the Guardian: “Everyone should be rewarded for their effort, but you cannot demand government deliver infrastructure, a skilled workforce and deal with the deficit, and not pay your fair share of taxes.
“But we are not spoiling for a fight or seeking a confrontation with business. All through this parliament we have been emphasising we want a partnership with business.
“The remarks by the Boots acting chief executive were very partisan and not the tone we have seen from other FTSE chief executives.
“In truth it was very difficult to follow his criticism and ironically to the extent he had a specific point it was about the need for a European policy, and we cannot be accused on that issue of following a populist or anti-business line.
“That is why we answered him in the way that we did. It is ultimately not in the interests of shareholders to end up in the party political arena. That is not where most company chief executives want to be.”
He added: “We don’t want a confrontation because the way we will be able to reform this economy is though a partnership with business through, for instance, a skills strategy but we need business to be with us implementing these reforms and shaping them.”
Umunna said he had a lot of respect for Rose, the former chairman of Marks & Spencer.
“I admire what he had done with the company, but he chose to be made a Tory peer by David Cameron and may one day become a minister in a future Tory government.
“Once he does that, he joins party politics and forfeits his right to be seen as a non-partisan businessman giving impartial advice on what is good for business. So far as I can tell, the remarks were co-ordinated with the Conservatives.”
He rejected suggestions from Rose that Labour was now trying to intimidate British business into censoring themselves.
“It is totally acceptable if business have issues with Labour policy on the taxation on high-value property, the reform of the banks, energy prices or our housing policies, and they are totally entitled to speak out or talk to us. We are not seeking to intimidate or silence anyone.”
Umunna denied Labour was likely to go into the election bereft of any well-known business support, pointing out that the party had its own business supporters in the Lords such as Charles Allen, the former ITV chief executive, as well as perhaps the best-known businessman in the country, Lord Sugar.
“But we are not seeking to wheel them out to make partisan attacks. I think a lot of people in business don’t want to see this turned into a political football. They want to build a consensus for long-term reforms.”
He pointed out that Labour had commissioned the Jaguar Land Rover chief executive to report for the party on manufacturing supply chains, while Graham Cole, chairman of Agusta Westland, led a review of exports and Sir John Armitt, chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, had been hired to advise on the delivery of infrastructure.
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