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Labour’s pro-business lullaby sends movers and shakers into a blissful sleep | John Crace

Labour’s pro-business lullaby sends movers and shakers into a blissful sleep | John Crace
Labour’s pro-business lullaby sends movers and shakers into a blissful sleep | John Crace

It was the hottest gig in town. Within hours of the event being announced all the £1,000-a-head tickets had gone. Thank God for those uncapped bonuses. Anyone who was anyone in the business world was here. Executives from Goldman Sachs, Google, Mastercard, HSBC and countless more besides. Not because they especially wanted to be there. More because they were desperate to not miss out on being there. There were FTSE 100 bosses in tears not to have made the cut.

This was an event like no other. Twenty-first century Britain at its most postmodern. Its most meta. For the importance lay not in what anyone might say, but in that it was happening at all. No one had come to hear anything of real interest. Or to be informed or entertained. That was very much not the point. Rather it was a celebration of a marriage. One that had started as an arrangement but had developed into love. And mutual trust. A day to luxuriate in one another. A wellness spa for the soul. And not a little self-congratulation.

Welcome to Labour’s second annual business conference. The first – still quite grand – was a much smaller affair in Canary Wharf. Thursday’s event, in a cavernous executive suite at the Oval cricket ground, felt far more corporate. Those who had bought the premium tickets on tables nearer to the front. The media excluded from many sessions. And the breakfast bacon baguettes. Though there was some continuity. The freebies of branded pen and notebook looked like they had been repurposed from last year. Maybe Labour had bought a job lot. A good investment.

Five years ago all this would have been an impossibility. Back then, Labour was perceived as a bad joke to business leaders. Positively dangerous even. The idea of them cosying up to one another would have been anathema to both groups. Now they can’t get enough of each other. The Public Displays of Affection becoming increasingly X-rated. Soon they will need their own Only Fans profile.

Now it is the Conservatives who are seen as toxic. Tory ministers may like to repeat their tired mantra that they are the party of business, but that’s not how the corporate world sees it. They have had enough. Only the odd debt collector and insolvency firm would sign up for a Tory business conference these days.

First a Brexit most of them didn’t want and from which they are still trying to recover. Then a Liz Truss budget that crashed the economy and sent interest rates rocketing. Now a Rishi Sunak government dedicated only to futile efforts to ensure its own survival. And still the Tories don’t get it. Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, celebrated four years since Brexit with a tweet saying: “People said we would fall off a cliff”. Was that really the bar? How tin eared can you get? We haven’t fallen off a cliff. Bring it on!

It also helps that there is almost no one in business who doesn’t think Labour will win the next election. So business gravitates to where the power is. No one wants to waste time schmoozing a bunch of losers who aren’t going to be around to alter any economic outcomes.

But Labour has been an open door since Keir Starmer changed the party. No one has actually gone as far as repeating the Peter Mandelson line about being “intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes” but it’s more or less implicit. Perhaps with a tad more corporate responsibility on the side. Labour is not just happy to meet business halfway, it will go as far as is required. So business doesn’t just see Labour as a threat neutered but as a genuine opportunity.

After a meet and greet breakfast session with Anneliese Dodds, the conference properly got under way with a brief introduction from Angela Rayner, who managed to awkwardly cram in four crap cricket gags into her opening few sentences. She said she felt completely at home in her surroundings, but she didn’t sound wholly convinced. Almost as if she needed more stardust to fully believe she was there. Maybe she was a hologram.

Then came a few words from the day’s lead sponsor. Step forward Erin Platts, chief exec of HSBC Innovation Banking. I literally have no idea what she said. Or rather I do, because I did manage to stay awake. Just. Must have been why they didn’t feed the media beforehand. But Platts’ sentences just merged into each other, never properly making complete sense. Perhaps this is how you get to have a stellar career in the City. Fluent in something, if not English. But she seemed quite chipper and optimistic about something. Life.

The shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, was the main attraction. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

For the main attraction we got the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves. She too started off somewhat awkwardly, as if she was nervous. Weird, because she’s far brighter than most of the people who were in the room. But after a few minutes, she hit her stride and you could feel the entire room breathe deeply and relax. She began to talk about her “securonomics” and it was like being bathed in liquid Valium. You could sense all the tension dissipate as you blissed out into a semi-conscious trance-like state.

This is the effect chancellors are meant to have. They aren’t there to be funny or to show off their brilliance. They are there to do the grunt work of the important, boring stuff so the rest of us can get on with our lives. We’ve had enough of attention-seeking chancellors fucking things up. We don’t want to be up half the night wondering what Jeremy Hunt or his half-witted side-kick Laura Trott might do next. Every time Jezza appears in public, he inspires panic. A man so clearly out of his depth. Reeves is totally at home in this environment. She lives and breathes it so we don’t have to.

The audience seemed to love her. She was one of them. She wasn’t going to inflict new traumas on them. The closest she came to committing news was to say she would cap corporation tax at 25%. Hardly the biggest of deals, but that’s the way the City likes it. Not someone hopping up and down like an out of control Duracell bunny changing his mind on tax cuts. We still didn’t learn if the £28bn green energy was a goer or not. But time will tell, I guess.

Then the media were led away as the roundtable sessions took place behind closed doors. Almost certainly nothing of any interest happened. And after lunch, Starmer gave another honeyed-toned address to close a few more eyes in slumber. “You might not like this,” he said as he talked of workers’ rights. But they did. Of course they did. Starmer doth protest too much. Everyone is in this marriage together. The boat that cannot be rocked.

So everyone left happy. Blissed out. Labour was in its heaven. As was the City. And the bonuses were in their pockets.

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