Jeremy Corbyn’s big speech to the Labour conference yesterday lasted an hour and fifteen minutes.
Technically, a quarter of that time was taken up with applause from his adoring audience – who had also chanted his name for a good few minutes as he took to the stage. The speech was just under 6,000 words long yet only mentioned business three times.
Once to say that he had in fact met some business groups, once to confirm that he’d ask business “to pay a bit more tax” and finally to suggest that business “should be accountable to the public”. He mentioned employers once, as part of a pledge to stop them “driving down pay and conditions”.
Financial services didn’t get a look-in, unsurprisingly, unless you count his swipe at “hedge funds and speculators”. The reaction from the business community to Corbyn’s meandering blueprint for “a new model of economic management” was diplomatic, but to the point.
The CBI said “there were few warm words from the Labour leader” while the BCC said the speech contained “little to reassure companies already worried about widespread state intervention and nationalisation”. It was left to the IoD to remind the Labour leader that “business is not the enemy”.
Despite the jitters that Corbyn sends through the corporate world, business leaders are very much alive to the idea that the opposition could well become the next government.
The City has been host recently to a number of meetings between Labour big-wigs and business chiefs. On the record, businesses say they look forward to working with Labour on issues like the skills gap. Off the record, the prospect of Corbyn in power horrifies and alarms – with good reason.
The IoD said last night they had hoped Corbyn would at least “throw them a bone” in his speech, but in their hearts they can’t really have been expecting one.
Whatever else the Labour leader may be, he isn’t ambiguous about his distrust in markets, his antipathy to enterprise, his faith in the state and his hostility to the City. The challenge for the Tories (and for business) is to recognise that Corbyn's positions enjoy growing support among the public and offer a coherent response. Let’s see if next week’s Conservative party conference can rise to the challenge.