Can Labour afford a battle with Boots?

News & Analysis

2nd February 2015

Is Labour wise to go to war with the head of Boots for warning that a Miliband government would be a ‘catastrophe’ for Britain? The party, which has spent considerable effort trying to persuade business that it is friendly after all, seems to be reversing over that hard work by turning on Stefano Pessina in the way it has. Pessina’s company says his remarks were taken out of context, but Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna said voters would ‘draw their own conclusions when those who don’t live here, don’t pay tax in this country and lead firms that reportedly avoid making a fair contribution in what they pay purport to know what is in Britain’s best interests’.

It is significant that it is Umunna who is leading the charge against Pessina, as he has naturally been the Shadow Cabinet minister tasked with improving his party’s relations with the business community. It suggests that the party feels confident enough in its standing now with business that it can afford to launch attacks on a few of the people it sees as ‘predators’.

But as well as being wary of appearing anti-business, Labour should also be careful that it doesn’t end up behaving like the ‘Yes’ camp did in Scotland, encouraging boycotts of firms that disagreed with its cause, rather than trying to persuade them of the merits of the argument it was promoting. That will certainly make it more difficult for the party to claim it is pro-business, as well as giving the impression to some that it is, if not a moaning man in the pub, then at least a grumpy one.

One thing that some Labourites would like their party to better articulate is how supportive they are of ‘good’ businesses. One says: ‘We need to be clear that this will be a great country to do business under a Labour government if you look after your staff and pay your taxes, and we would do everything we can to support you. That needs to be clearer.’

If Labour is to go war with Boots, it also needs to find a nice friendly business to snuggle up to in order to illustrate that distinction.