Issues & Ideas | 16th February 2015

Who is best for British business? Labour trail, but voters agree with them in theory

For the past fortnight, politics has been “dominated by questions over who can tackle […]

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For the past fortnight, politics has been “dominated by questions over who can tackle tax avoidance”, according to the Labour Party. If by ‘politics’ we mean things said by politicians and covered by the press, that seems fair, but recent weeks have been part of a broader debate: Which party is best for British business?

The polls won’t solve all our problems, but they can offer some initial insights. The first point made clear by the numbers is the Tories’ popularity over Labour on the issue. As on the economy, the Tories seem to have an in-built lead when it comes to helping people make money.

A recent YouGov poll was emblematic — about a third of voters said Tories had the best business policies, whereas only a fifth chose Labour. Among Labour supporters, Labour does better: more than half of Labour voters think their party has the best approach.

More than 80% of Tories think their party is the most business friendly; a fifth of Labour voters agree.

But that’s still far less than the number of Tory supporters who think their party is best. More than 80 per cent of Tories think their party is the most business friendly, and nearly a fifth of Labour supporters actually agree.

This isn’t necessarily about Labour’s approach.

If you ask voters whether government should generally support or challenge business, most voters – including most Lib Dem and Ukip voters – say businesses should be challenged, as they usually try and take advantage of people.

As for the attack on Labour by Boots boss Stefano Pessina a couple of weeks ago, twice as many Labour supporters think the bosses of large companies should stay neutral ahead of an election as think they should speak out. But that may just be because Labour voters think that most big business chiefs don’t support their party.

More specifically, very few voters support Pessina’s attack when voters are told he doesn’t live in Britain or pay British taxes.

Labour supporters think the bosses of large companies should stay neutral ahead of an election.

As for attacks on Labour, voters are divided on whether business leaders genuinely think Labour would be bad, or are just Tory supporters in disguise. But Labour voters are adamant: more than half of them say they’re just Tories, and fewer than 1 in 10 say they’re being genuine.

So such attacks aren’t likely to win over Labour’s current voters, but they aren’t really the people the Tories need to win this election. The Tories need to win back voters from Ukip; around a fifth of those who voted for them in 2010 have defected to the party. The Tories have spent three elections taking voters from Labour.

Nevertheless, the data offers a sobering conclusion for Labour: almost no one thinks the attacks by business help them, and more than half of voters – including most Labour supporters – think they hurt them. The party clearly shouldn’t court or welcome these criticisms.

The data offers a sobering conclusion for Labour: almost no one thinks the attacks by business help them.

The other problem for Labour is that by ‘bad for business’ voters really mean ‘bad for the economy as a whole’. Voters are divided about whether Conservative policies will be bad for the economy, but they are twice as likely to say Labour’s would be bad than would be good.

Again, there’s a dissonance in the data. Voters don’t think Labour would any worse for the customers of big business. They just think their policies would be worse for the shareholders of business – which you might think would actually make them more popular.

But that isn’t the case. Labour may just have a broader image problem. The party was set-up in opposition to business. Voters may just be predisposed to think them worse than the Tories at helping employers – and the country – make more money.

It’s not all bad for Labour leaders. In the same way, voters seem to assume they will be on the side of ‘working people’, in a way they rarely think Tory leaders are.

Catch a clip of us discussing this all on R4’s The World Tonight this week (25 or so minutes in).