Speaking at the Jaguar Land Rover factory in Wolverhampton today, Ed Miliband repeated his oft-heard line that he is “pro-business, not pro-business as usual”. His two most recent speeches – at Jaguar today and at Welsh Labour conference in Swansea on Saturday – neatly encapsulate this approach to business relations from the Labour leader.
In Swansea, addressing an audience of Labour supporters, the emphasis was very much on the “not pro-business as usual” side of the equation. The target audience for the speech went far beyond the hall full of Welsh Labour activists, with Miliband looking to set the weekend news agenda by channelling his inner-Tom Petty and insisting: “I Won’t Back Down” on tax avoidance by large corporations and wealthy individuals.
His proposals to go further than the Coalition on tackling tax avoidance, including through a root and branch review of the performance of HMRC in this regard, show Miliband in the role he has often looked most comfortable in during his time as leader of the opposition: as thorn in the side of “vested interests” and “powerful elites”. It is clear he hopes that a battle with tax avoiders can do for him in the run up to May 7th what scraps with News International, banks and energy companies have done for him at other times during his leadership.
In today’s speech at Jaguar, whilst again mentioning the problem of tax avoidance and insisting that the economy only works for “a few at the top”, he nonetheless sought to highlight the “pro-business” side of the balance sheet: emphasising the need to boost productivity; a commitment to remaining inside the EU; addressing the UK’s skills shortages; investing in Britain’s long-term infrastructure needs; retaining low corporation tax rates; and cutting taxes and boosting finance for small firms.
Miliband believes there is enough in here to persuade doubters that he is not some anti-capitalist revolutionary and that his real agenda is to deliver a “better” and “more inclusive” prosperity through an active industrial strategy which prioritises high skills, high productivity and high wages. His choice of Jaguar Land Rover as a venue and repeated praise for that firm’s efforts indicated that this is the sort of firm Miliband wants to nurture as at JLR, he said, “wealth is created as a partnership: management and workforce driving for higher productivity”.
Miliband will have been pleased to see the CBI and IoD issuing positive responses to his speech. But arguably he will have been even more encouraged to read the fully supportive Guardian article penned by Lord Mandelson, one of those ‘Blairite’ former Ministers who has frequently chipped in with comments bemoaning some of Miliband’s more stringently critical rhetoric on business.
We can expect to see Miliband continue to walk this “pro-business, not pro-business as usual” tightrope in the next three months. In many ways it is a more subtle version of the theme he introduced with his “Producers vs Predators” speech back in 2011.
It is a delicate balancing act: continuing to cultivate an image of standing up to powerful interests on the one hand; but trying to ensure that big business does not weigh in so heavily against him to derail the Labour campaign on the other.
But in his speeches at Jaguar and in Swansea, Mr Miliband may have demonstrated that he is capable of striking just that balance.