The scarlet letter

A touchy-feely Labour government must embrace the ugly reality of business


This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The list of 121 bosses who signed a letter backing Keir Starmer for prime minister conjures a peculiar vision of British business life.

Among the signatories were Emma Woods, chair of Ancient+Brave, a “bovine collagen” business offering “wellness” and “self-care” through expensive jars of powdered cowhide. 

Also putting his name to the list was Asi Sharabi, CEO of Wonderbly, which sells personalised kids’ books with titles such as The Little Girl who Dared to Dream and Daddy’s Magic Hugs.Then there was Max Alexander, the former CEO of Secret Cinema, which charges film fans £140 to spend an evening dressed as a superhero in an East London warehouse.

I don’t wish to disparage any of the folk who signed the Labour letter. I salute anyone who creates and builds businesses. Who knows? Some of these companies may be future FTSE giants. And brown-nosing the powerful, however distasteful, is sometimes a smelly necessity.

Companies like BAE support 80,000 jobs in marginal constituencies across the UK

Equally, I do not doubt the sincerity of Starmer and Rachel Reeves, when they declare that wealth creation is their “number one mission”. My fear, however, is that Labour’s leadership has been experiencing a new-age, sentimentalised, cosplay version of British business, which means they are ill-prepared for the ugly, hard-edged realities of the real thing.

Our nation’s economy is propelled by hard liquor, deadly weaponry, dirty oil, addictive gambling and the more socially useless areas of finance. And no miracle cures, parental cuddles or celluloid fantasies can easily alter this inconvenient fact. 

Incoming ministers need to understand they inherit a deep, impervious economic structure, which has been built layer by layer through the economic policies of their predecessors stretching back two centuries.

Indeed, our story starts with William Pitt the Younger and his plan to weaken Napoleon through a trade blockade of the Continent. Among the beneficiaries were Scottish merchants who capitalised on the shortage of French brandy by selling Scotch whisky to London’s clubland. 

Today the heir to Johnnie Walker, Arthur Bell et al. is the £60 billion spirits behemoth Diageo. Even the most Methodist of Labour ministers will struggle to resist Diageo’s signature blend of cheery bonhomie and financial muscle. 

Decisions by successive administrations after the Second World War to maintain a stand-alone defence industry means that Starmer will have to do some lawyerly obfuscations when his left wing next kicks off over arms exports to Saudi Arabia. 

Businesses such as BAE Systems support an estimated 80,000 jobs in factories straddling marginal seats across the country. There are probably still more workers employed making nuclear submarines than electric car batteries.

The government-sponsored dash for North Sea oil in the 1970s and 1980s has left another lasting legacy that Labour cannot wish away. The sector boasts two of our top 10 companies, Shell and BP, and a network of smaller enterprises. 

Looking at LinkedIn, in the city of Aberdeen alone, there are currently 600 job vacancies in the oil and gas industry. Maybe some of those folk will over time get rehired to make the blades for wind turbines, but Big Oil will remain a big feature of our economy for decades to come.

Similarly, the last Labour government’s decision to liberalise gambling also casts a long shadow. The fleapit bookmakers Ladbrokes and Paddy Power have morphed into slick global online gaming giants like Entain and Flutter Entertainment, and the UK has become a global centre for this dubious form of digital innovation. The betting trade, like banking, has perhaps become too big for any government to allow it to fail.

While the UK has never produced a consumer tech giant to rival Meta or Google, government coddling of the City has helped make us a global centre for financial tech — there are more than 3,000 British companies operating in this sector. 

We hear a lot about the so-called “challenger” businesses with earnest purpose statements about helping consumers get better deals. However, it is an uncomfortable truth that we have also become rather good at the spivvier edges of finance like cryptocurrency and high-frequency trading. 

There used to be a powerful element within the Labour movement who had a strong grasp of the realities of our economy. Moderate trade unionists, typified by the Nineties engineering union leader Ken Jackson, had few qualms about arms exports or oil drilling. With the unions having descended into left-wing militancy, Starmer and Reeves lack this source of practical advice which helped anchor their Labour predecessors.

The Shadow Chancellor’s supporters make much of her strong economics hinterland at the Bank of England and her brief time toiling in the mortgages division of Halifax Bank of Scotland. 

However, I do worry that a background in macro-theorising (“securonomics” anyone?) is not the ideal grounding for the tough decisions which will need to be made. Not all economic growth is green growth, ethical growth, or even “nice” growth. 

Economies do evolve. And maybe our descendants will all be gainfully employed selling each other anti-ageing supplements and cringy baby books while wearing masks and dayglo spandex. But successful change only happens when we face difficult realities and I hope our new masters will be up to this challenge.

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