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Miliband's 'Anti-Business' Backlash Isn't Ruining His Campaign

09/02/2015 14:06 GMT | Updated 11/04/2015 10:59 BST
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Business has had it in for Ed Miliband over recent days, with bosses queuing up to warn last week how he would be a "catastrophe" in government and drive talented entrepreneurs away with his "anti-business" rhetoric.

After such a week, the Labour leader has gone back to the hornet's nest with a big stick - a promise to double paternity leave - which has been swiftly condemned as a "tax on business".

So is he committing political hari-kiri? The polls show that Miliband is coming out of the "anti-business" row stronger, not weaker, in news that could shake up the political received wisdom for good.

Labour's triple-election winning prime minister Tony Blair has tried to teach his party the importance of wooing business, writing in his memoirs that they lost the 2010 general election as "tellingly, we lost business".

"If... chief executives say it is Labour that will put the economy at risk, who does the voter believe? Answer: the chief executives. Once you lose them, you lose more than a few votes. You lose your economic credibility. And a sprinkling of academic economists, however distinguished, won't make up the difference," he went on.

By Blair's logic, Miliband should be on course for a crushing defeat. However, since Boots boss Stefano Pessina ignited the row, Labour's poll rating has improved from being tied with the Tories, according to YouGov, to a one point lead. Miliband faced days of damning headlines as top businessmen, including ex-M&S boss Stuart Rose, Yo Sushi founder Simon Woodroffe and Lastminute.com co-founder Brent Hoberman, expressed their concerns about what he would do in office, but his position in the polls stayed strong.

The Tories made great political capital out of their closeness with business chiefs, with a steady stream of bosses backing the party's pledge before the 2010 general election not to increase national insurance, in a sustained attack on Labur's "tax on jobs". They would have hoped that last week's business offensive on Miliband would have been similarly effective, as Rose, now a Tory peer, lashing out at the Labour leader as a "seventies throwback". Other Tory allies waded in too, including party donor and Heathrow chairman Sir Nigel Rudd and B&Q boss Sir Ian Cheshire, who was given his knighthood by David Cameron. Despite throwing the kitchen sink at Miliband, the Tories seem to have hardly dented him.

Miliband is also banking on the fact that some of his business critics would struggle to invite public sympathy, like Boots' Pessina, a Monaco-based billionaire. He has made great play of this, telling voters - in his rebuke to Pessina last week - that he was fighting against an "unholy alliance between the Conservative party and people like him who are actually saying that a country can't change".

The Labour leader has been busy trying to lump this row as part of his messianic war against the "powerful forces" working against him, after pushing for an energy price freeze, going after Rupert Murdoch during the hacking scandal, and backing a cap on rent rises.

He has bet his campaign on the fact, as polling shows, that voters want a party that is tough on business. The party has offered a chipper interpretation of last week's row, with a spokesman musing that "it wasn't what we planned, but we welcome the definition it gives us".

In a survey by Populus last year for the Financial Times, 44% of voters said they would be more likely to support a party that was tougher on big business, with those demanding action including 50% of Tory supporters, 63% of Liberal Democrats, 67% of Ukip backers and 72% of Labour supporters.

Despite David Cameron accusing Ed Miliband of having a "sneering hatred of business", the poll found 52% of Tory voters thought it was good that parties were campaigning on proposals to change the way that big business operates. Meanwhile, a survey by YouGov this February found that only 31% of voters thought the government should be helping big business, while 49% think ministers should be doing more to stand up to them.

Nigel Farage's rise has shown that the public loves an anti-establishment populist politician who can "speak truth to power". Miliband is trying to cast himself in a similar mould, but on a larger scale as the head of the official Opposition.

Labour's strategy won't be ruined by shouts of the party being "anti-business", as the party hopes they will show off how Miliband would want to change things.

But with Ukip and the Greens growing, how credibly can former government minister Ed Miliband be the outsider who changes it all?