BRIGHTON, England (Reuters) - Labour’s annual conference is proving a hot ticket for businesses keen to get to know the opposition party again after its left-wing conversion proved popular with voters and edged it closer to power.
A sell-out business seminar, competition for prime exhibition stalls and a surge in demand for commercial passes: executives and lobbyists have made the journey down to the south English coast to hear more about Labour’s policy agenda.
But, with the increased presence, which includes tech firm Google who skipped the 2016 event, comes increased scrutiny and pressure on the party to listen and adapt policies, many of which are at odds with the free markets firms often want.
“Business has realised that Labour may form the next government and has re-engaged,” said Tony Langham, Chief Executive of city communications firm Lansons which decided to hold a business reception at the Labour conference to meet client demand for engagement with the party.
“After the shambles of the last two years, Labour conference was much more useful for business this year ... Labour said more on specific policy and shadow ministers were more accessible and open.”
Labour said 2,757 business representing 1,800 companies were attending, more than double the number that came to the party’s 2016 conference.
The jump in interest has been triggered by June’s snap election which Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called to try to increase her majority at Labour’s expense and win a mandate for making a clean break with the European Union.
It was Labour, written off by pundits before the vote as a failed left-wing experiment led by an unsuitable socialist, which made gains. The party’s plan to end austerity, nationalise industries and borrow to invest in public services captured the imagination of voters and reduced May to a minority government.
Led by veteran campaigner Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has closed an opinion poll gap of more than 20 points in the last six months to stand roughly level with the Conservatives.
A Survation poll on Tuesday showed Labour would be the largest party in parliament, albeit short of an outright majority, if a vote were held now.
That, and the prospect that internal Conservative Party divisions over Brexit which could bring down May’s government, have made Labour a viable alternative.
“(The election) has helped. We’ve always been engaged with the small- to medium-sized businesses, but I think big business is starting to recognise us,” said Ajay Nehra, vice-president of Labour Business, an affiliated Labour Party group focussed on developing business policy.
“Microsoft and Google are here, we’re actually talking to them.”
Neither Microsoft nor Google were available for comment.
Labour said demand for stands at the conference hall, used by businesses and other organisations to promote their agenda, outstripped supply by 20 percent, and extra stalls had to be added, snaking down corridors leading off the main venue.
Four were sold the day after the June election.
That is in stark contrast to the 2016 event when the party was struggling to manage internal ideological divisions caused by Corbyn’s decision to shift the party back towards its socialist roots and abandon the pro-business centrist platform that underpinned ex-leader Tony Blair’s three election wins.
“It was as if it received a shot of adrenaline,” said Eric Bush, a representative from the Cayman Islands who attends party conferences to gather intelligence and help manage the British Overseas Territory’s relationship with London’s political class.
“Members of Parliament, Peers, delegates and exhibitors all seemed happy to be at the conference this year with a renewed hope of moving from the opposition to becoming the government.”
But, while having a realistic shot at government and a clearer political identity that has attracted the attention of business, Corbyn’s Labour has not been met with universal enthusiasm in the siderooms and bars of Brighton’s seafront hotels, where most of the informal lobbying takes place.
Fresh plans to take control of billions of pounds of privately-funded public infrastructure contracts, cap credit card interest rate charges and take a more hands-on approach to the financial sector have set businesses on edge.
“When you get to wholesale state intervention, when you get to conversations about sector-by-sector nationalisation, about tearing up government contracts - that can’t be done unilaterally,” Josh Hardie, deputy director general of policy and campaigns at the CBI business body, told Reuters.
“You’ve got to sit down and talk to business because frankly they’re the people on the ground who understand what is going to happen day-to-day in their operations.”
And, while the swagger of a strong election result and an influx of young voters has provided a more upbeat political outlook for the party, some business delegates complained it has not resulted in a more collaborative or transparent approach.
“Sometimes it’s like a random fishing expedition trying to find the right person to talk to who can actually feed your ideas in... There’s no process,” said one business representative in Brighton who asked not to be named.
“Getting policy detail can be like trying to nail jelly to a wall ... you worry you’re wasting your time.”
Reporting by William James; Editing by Peter Graff