In the mid-1970s, when I was a 10-year-old in love with Choppers and Sherbet Fountains, the ideological war between Thatcherism and Bennism began.
Small versus big state, low versus high taxation, light versus tight regulation, and private versus public ownership.
Now, 45 years later, we have a neo-Thatcherite government facing a Bennite-controlled Labour party. And they are preparing for a fight to the political death.
Both sides are equally determined to revolutionise British society. Boris Johnson’s government wants to deliver Brexit in a blond-welter of head-butting optimism and then complete the Thatcherite revolution. Jeremy Corbyn wants to create a “socialist society” by “an irreversible shift [of] wealth and power in favour of working people”.
Our two largest political parties can no longer be accused of being two shades of grey.
On the Conservative side, we have heard much of Dominic “el Capo” Cummings and his plans to exit the EU “by any means necessary” on 31 October. Some may remain sceptical, but he’s not bluffing.
This government’s leading members believe in “creative crises” and view hard Brexit anxieties as Project Fear’s second-rate sequel. No-deal does not faze them and Cummings (applying the Art of War strategies discussed in his blog) hopes that the threat of it will divide and disorientate his opponents.
But the Labour side – and the risk associated with it – has been relatively under-explored recently. It shouldn’t be.
Take Labour’s plan to unshackle the government’s “incredible purchasing power” and use it as the cattle-prod of socialist change.
Everyone focuses on the slew of nationalisations Labour is proposing, but this policy is every bit as radical and far-reaching.
Each year, the government invites the private sector to tender for over £270bn of public sector contracts. Labour wants to use this financial leverage to revolutionise the economy. If your company doesn’t reflect Labour’s values, then you would be very unlikely to win public tenders under a Corbyn government.
Those values mean that all companies bidding for public contracts will have to recognise trade unions, comply with collective bargaining agreements, have acceptable diversity, equality, training and apprenticeship policies, pay their suppliers within 30 days, and demonstrate “decisive action” to combat climate change. This, Labour argues, is “putting people and the planet before profit”.
There is also tricky news for chief executives. If they are paid more than 20 times the wage of the lowest-paid worker in their organisation, it will not win a public tender unless it can show “clear efforts to close” that pay gap.
And Labour wants to go further – much further. In a radical break with 40 years of policy, public bodies will be the “preferred option” for the provision of services and will only be able to outsource a service if it is “failing”.
Even then, they will have a legal obligation to prepare their own “realistic [and well-resourced] in-house bid”. A public values commissioner will “ensure any tender process is awarded on the basis of public value, rather than [to] the cheapest employer”.
We should not be one-eyed; some of this is fair and just. For example, if your company doesn’t have a diversity and equality policy, it obviously should have.
But we also shouldn’t underestimate the potential impact of these proposals, which seek to impose Labour’s version of business values onto the private sector in the most astonishingly wide-ranging way.
This is a New Socialist Labour. If you don’t comply, we don’t buy. Outside of wartime, this would be one of the biggest shake-ups of UK government tendering and purchasing policies ever undertaken.
It is also one reason why Corbyn’s inner-circle wants a “left-wing Brexit”. They believe that exiting the bloc will allow them to change the current EU procurement rules and write a new public tendering regime to create a socialist society. The new rules would be designed to support UK industry, workers, and products over those of other EU countries.
This may be easier to put in a manifesto than to deliver in practice. For example, countries whose companies feel excluded from UK tenders might well impose similar exclusions on British companies, and require the British tendering regime to mirror their own as the price of market access.
But that uncertainty, and the complex impact of the UK’s international legal obligations in this area, means that businesses must prepare for potential global and domestic fall-out.
By now, every sensible business knows that it should have a Brexit plan. But with the looming possibility of a “Do or Die” Brexit election, they also need a Corbyn plan.
The Conservatives are “turbo-charging” themselves for an election anchored along Thatcherite lines: free markets and low regulation, populist rhetoric on crime, and promises of investment in the NHS and the police. In response, Labour offers a high-speed Bennite revolution, launched with a first-100-day budget.
No one can predict how an angry, five-party (don’t forget the SNP) country will vote at a General Election. But one thing is clear: Thatcher’s political heirs and Benn’s disciples are at war again, and the winners will decide the fate of UK business.
Every company must therefore be ready to survive, compete and tender in the regulatory landscape which a potential Labour victory would bring. The alternative could be a long spell in commercial Coventry, frozen out of public tenders.
Main image credit: Getty