Have you met “Laura Smith” yet? She’s the rather unconvincing star of the latest ad for Halifax bank. Well, I say “ad for Halifax bank”. If you watch this clip you’ll see that (spoiler alert!) for the first 45 seconds out of a minute of costly air time there’s no mention of banking at all. It looks more like an ad for an airline. This is where we’ve got to today: businesses that pay for expensive ads but who are too embarrassed to say what business they are really in.
Business is on the back foot. And in many cases deservedly so. Clearly the banks, which we’ve all bailed out, still have a lot of work to do in terms of changing culture and working practices. Investment banks seem barely changed at all. Don’t take my word for it – take a look at Joris Luyendijk’s brilliant banking blog on the Guardian web site.
But it’s not just the banks. A trip down the high street can often be a pretty depressing experience. Badly managed, demotivated staff are doing repetitive, unexciting jobs for poor rates of pay. Phoning up a call centre can be a grim “customer experience” too: patience and a robust sense of humour are required. This is not to blame the employees, of course. The businesses they are working for are sometimes just not good enough.
As I argue in a piece for The Independent today there is currently a dearth of inspiring leadership in British business. Yes, times are hard, and markets (please don’t call it a “global race”) can be competitive. But there is no need for the defensiveness and even grumpiness that we see in business circles. Balance sheets have been restored since the depths of the recession, and British businesses are sitting on a lot of cash – hundreds of billions according to some estimates – which they are not investing, either in new staff or new capacity and R&D.
A Financial Times leader today calls on Ed Miliband to tone down what the paper sees as his “distaste” for business. The accusation is unfair. Challenging the energy firms to do better by its customers does not imply distaste for business – merely a desire to protect customers from exploitation by an oligopoly. The 20 month freeze in prices is designed to find time to make the energy market work better. Making markets work better is hardly the policy goal of a subversive. Miliband’s initiative deserves a better and more thoughtful response from the energy companies than it has received so far. Threats of black-outs and investment strikes are no use at all.
It is true that at the last election no significant business figure endorsed the Labour Party, and it’s equally true that it would be good to avoid a repeat of that situation in 2015. Labour should not be an anti-business party. As John Monks, the former TUC general secretary, observed many years ago: “We are all capitalists now.”
But when capitalism is in crisis, as it has been and arguably still is, it sometimes falls to social democrats to help bring it back to health. So Ed Miliband should not be put off by some of the harrumphing in certain quarters, no matter how distinguished the harrumphers are. The challenge now is to show how Labour wants the mixed economy to work better. Labour must mean business even if, sadly, some business leaders still don’t appear to.