Labouring British industry will gain from a Tory election defeat

George Pitcher is chief executive of issue management consultancy Luther Pendragon

By all accounts, the squabbling over who should play scapegoat in the Conservative Party’s marketing department had started in earnest by last weekend. Party chairman Brian Mawhinney is said to be furious that he has been credited – or, rather, debited – with some of the more feeble advertising catchlines of this altogether feeble campaign, when the blame should lie more justly with Tory ad guru Lord Saatchi.

For his part, Screaming Lord Saatch is incensed that some of what he would consider to be his tide-turning creativity has been rejected. Since I gather that some of this mould-breaking stuff consisted of a picture of Tony Blair above the slogan “What lies behind the smile?”, I will repeat what I have said many times before: Saatchi isn’t working.

But surely the real point that arises from this spat between the Tories’ best communicators (heaven help them) is that it is a microcosm of all that has been wrong with the management of this protracted and dreary election campaign.

For all the politicians’ claims to have been dealing in policy presentation, the truth is that the past six weeks have almost exclusively been about the ascription of blame and scare stories.

A shame – for we find ourselves either on the threshhold of a dream or a nightmare. The decisions we take in the sanctity of the polling booth this week could prescribe the environment in which we do business for a decade or more. With this awesome responsibility in mind, we should have an answer to the question as to where the vote of British business should go.

Business does not exist in isolation. Policy issues over education and the NHS are every bit as vital to the business vote as are issues of unemployment and taxation, not least because a government that cannot manage the NHS is unlikely to be able to manage the economy. But, in this last column before we go to vote, I want to look at how our vote should be influenced purely on issues of trade, rather than of professions. And I believe there are three fundamental trading issues to consider: our future in Europe, the management of the economy and the nature of regulation.

Europe is overwhelmingly the most important of these issues. Since we are already committed – to all intents and purposes, already have – to a single European market, this issue is almost entirely defined by our approach to a single currency.

Single currency policy statements have been more than usually vacuous. “Wait and see” was always the sort of vacillating, suburban policy statement that we have come to expect from John Major. “Negotiate and decide”, common to both Conservative and Labour parties, is just a less twee version of the same thing. As one weekend commentator put it, what they should say is “Get elected and announce”.

Since we already have a single market, a single currency is an inevitability. Isolation from that market would, for Britain, be a disaster. It follows that we need this week to elect the best stewards of British interests in the emerging Europe. The choice is not between those who would take us into a federal superstate and those who would fly the flag most proudly (personally, I favour federalism – look at the US economy since its union), but between those who will be taken seriously by our European partners and those who won’t.

In this regard, the choice is between the faction-riven Conservative government, which includes “Little-Englander” loonies such as Michael Portillo, or a well-disciplined new government carrying no such baggage. That, at least, will be the view of the likes of Helmut Kohl – and so there should be no choice at all.

On the related matter of the economy, the choice is also one of stewardship. There have been consumer booms under the Tories, but no economic miracle – the latest figures show that Britain’s share of world trade has declined from 5.3 per cent in 1979 to less than five per cent in 1995; the pound is also worth less against the major currencies than in 1979. The service industries on which the Government has so long relied cannot deliver the levels of growth that the economy now requires – only manufacturing can do that and it has been decimated. For econometric reasons if no other, we need government to encourage industrial investment – and that does not appear in the Conservatives’ ideological lexicon.

As to regulation, the Conservatives have given with the hand of privatisation and deregulation and taken away with the heavy hands of regulators. It has happened from self-regulation of financial services in the City to anomalous burdens on privatised utilities – and there is nothing the Conservatives can do about it without acknowledging defeat. Blair, ironically enough, has an opportunity to set much of British business free through systems of simpler legislative regulation (if it really loves him, it will come back).

So, on matters of trade alone, the marketing vote has really only one place to go. I accept that in some areas, business voters will prefer the Liberal Democrats as a means of removing an administration that no longer delivers. But, otherwise, my message to marketers this week is unequivocal: Vote Labour.

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