* UK business alarmed by Miliband rhetoric
* Business tends to support Conservatives, but backed Blair
* Would like EU vote brought forward if Cameron wins
* Business could campaign to keep Britain in EU
By Kate Holton and William James
LONDON, Feb 19 (Reuters) – British opposition leader Ed
Miliband has so alarmed business executives with his talk of
‘asset strippers’ and ‘tax dodgers’ that many want a
Conservative win at the election, even if it carries the risk of
an exit from Europe.
Representatives of some of Britain’s biggest firms accuse
the Labour party leader of demonising big business as a way to
align himself with ordinary voters before the May 7 election.
Pledges from the 45-year-old to set energy prices, reform
banks and lift the minimum wage have been followed by several
uncomfortable meetings with the heads of companies.
As a result, executives are backing David Cameron’s
Conservatives, even though that entails a referendum on Europe
before the end of 2017, potentially deterring companies from
investing in Britain and, if there is a vote to leave,
disrupting trade with the 500 million-strong EU.
In return, they would like the in/out vote brought forward.
“On the one hand we have Labour … that seems to believe
that bashing business will be good business at the ballot box,
but you don’t have a referendum,” Martin Sorrell, CEO of the
world’s largest advertising agency WPP and an employer
of 179,000 people, told Reuters.
“On the other you have the Conservatives who tend to be more
attuned to business but have a commitment to a referendum.”
British business has long aligned itself with the
centre-right Conservatives, but that changed under Tony Blair,
Labour’s most successful leader, who embarked on a “prawn
cocktail offensive” to build relations with Britain’s boardrooms
before winning three elections starting in 1997.
One Blair aide declared that Labour was “intensely relaxed
about people getting filthy rich”.
But 18 years on and with the Conservatives still blaming
Labour for the economic crash, Miliband has sought a different
Elected to lead Labour largely with the backing of unions,
he set out his stall towards business in 2011 when he described
some firms as predators and asset strippers.
His pledge in 2013 to cap household energy prices tapped
into the frustration of voters tired of constant increases. And
he has since painted himself as the man to take on the vested
interests of business and the London-centric elite.
Charles Lewington, managing director of lobbyists Hanover
who count 25 global firms among their 75 clients, said many
meetings between business leaders and Miliband had been
“For five minutes he says tell me what your concerns are,
and then for 55 minutes he says this is how I think business
should operate in a world of austerity where ordinary people are
not earning enough.”
A recent poll of executives found a majority favoured a
“PARTY OF THE RICH”
Meetings between senior executives of another FTSE-100
company and Ed Balls, Miliband’s finance spokesman, were much
more constructive, one source said, and other execs noted that
politicians often change their tone once in power.
A source familiar with Labour said the party was also being
punished for its plans to tax the rich more, which include a
“mansion tax” on expensive properties as well as a higher rate
of income tax for the top earners.
But as the election approaches, with no clear winner in
prospect, Miliband has been compared with some of the most
anti-business Labour leaders of the 1980s, when an ideological
battle raged over the role of the free market and the state.
He has billed Cameron’s Conservatives as the ‘party of the
rich’ with one set of rules to its friends who avoid tax, and
another entirely for those who cheat the benefit system.
A recent opinion poll showed the approach was gaining
traction, with nearly twice as many Britons thinking Miliband is
on the side of ordinary people as opposed to those who think he
is a danger to the economy.
But it has set alarms ringing not only in the shining towers
of London but in offices and factories up and down the country.
“It’s an easy trick for politicians to point at business and
call them fat cats,” said Richard Steele, the non-executive
chairman of pottery company Portmeirion, which employs 600
people and is based in Stoke on Trent, central England.
“But interventionism is dangerous, Ed Miliband must
understand that there are laws of unintended consequences.”
Voting Conservative however is no easy option for business.
Facing a growing threat from the anti-EU UKIP party and a
number of his own party members, Cameron has vowed to clamp down
on immigration and renegotiate Britain’s ties with Brussels.
Several top British chief executives have told Reuters they
fear the “nightmare” uncertainty a referendum would bring.
Some, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the issue was
now so toxic it could only be settled with a vote, and they
would like to see a reduction in the bureaucracy coming from
Brussels. But the sooner it can happen the better.
“Despite being pro-European, the damage Labour could do is
clearly much bigger than the positive of their position on
Europe,” the chief executive of one FTSE 100 company said,
adding that it would be better to have Cameron win the election
and then win a referendum to keep Britain in the EU.
For Portmeirion’s Steele though, the very prospect is
terrifying. While he accepts that the Conservatives are more a
friend of business, he worries that an exit from Europe would
hit London’s position as a financial centre.
“I feel as though they are (raising the stakes) and I’ll be
really frightened if they get it wrong,” he said.
Several CEOs said they would be willing to drop their usual
reluctance to speak out and campaign for Britain to stay within
the EU, following a similar approach taken in Scotland when
business leaders campaigned to keep the country together.
“If we’re going to have (a referendum), let’s have it
quickly,” Jerry Buhlmann, CEO of the 23,000-strong Dentsu Aegis
Network marketing firm, told Reuters. “It is legitimate for
business to have a point of view. We’re not the bad guys.”
(Editing by Giles Elgood)
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