Mark Twain's suggestion that “there is no such thing as a new idea” is particularly true of politics. The Labour leadership campaign injected new energy into the Labour party, and plenty of new members.
Jeremy Corbyn yesterday rode the crest of that wave through his first party conference speech, receiving several standing ovations. It was an impassioned speech to rouse the delegates, but ultimately Labour still has to grapple with the same old questions faced by any party that wants to govern.
A government’s first responsibility is to manage the nation’s finances. Every pledge, commitment or guarantee, from defence to welfare, depends on a pretty straightforward equation: what is the correct balance between spending, taxation, borrowing and debt? Business leaders, whose lives are tied to their balance sheets, know this better than most.
The first thing our members will have noticed was that enterprise was almost entirely absent from this speech. Corbyn briefly spoke of his desire to support small businesses and high-growth businesses. As an organisation that represent 35,000 business leaders, with 70 per cent running small or medium-sized firms, this is sentiment we clearly share.
There was little detail in the speech on what shape this support would take, so let me make the case from our point of view. Taxes set at a bearable level and which are simple to pay, regulation that doesn’t unnecessarily distract management away from actually running the business – these are the things that set up a competitive environment which allows innovative new firms to gain a foothold, and keeps costs low for consumers.
Beyond this, we hope in future to see a genuine recognition that, without a successful private sector, the tax receipts which pay for the public services we value would dry up. Corbyn painted a picture of a difficult economic recovery, and it is true that it has been a long road back from the 2008 financial crash.
But it would not have been possible without the millions of UK companies, most of them small, working hard to serve customers, grow profits and create jobs. Of course, businesses need reliable infrastructure networks and a good education system, and we welcome the commitment to those areas in the speech.
It would be unrealistic to expect Corbyn, only weeks into the job, to spell out his policies in every area. This was a speech about values, so let’s engage with him head-on. Business leaders also have values. The Institute of Directors, which was founded in 1903, only three years after the Labour Party, has a set of principles which guide our actions.
We are instructed by our royal charter “to encourage and foster a climate favourable to entrepreneurial activity and wealth creation”. We believe this is the basis of a strong economy which will deliver the goals that we share with Corbyn: good jobs, strong tax receipts, a growing economy.
Holding values includes the responsibility to criticise people or businesses that fail to live up to a certain standard. The IoD had no hesitation, for example, in criticising Volkswagen recently when its board manifestly fell short of the conduct we would expect.
But criticism is not enough. Values are an important guide, but steering a large economy like the UK’s also requires an understanding that government policy often fails to achieve its desired end. Business leaders are forced to deliver on their principles for their customers, staff and suppliers every day.
If they fail, it is not hard for customers to punish them by rejecting their products or services. Corbyn’s real test is not a conference speech, but how, over the coming months, he shows us what his values mean in practice.