Blair in industrial soup as Campbell spin is canned

Industry chiefs, tired of the Third Way spin that has left them burdened with red tape and taxes, will demand real solutions from the PM this week, says George Pitcher

As the author of the book that predicted the current reappraisal of our spin culture, I cannot let last week’s resignation of Alastair Campbell as the Prime Minister’s director of communications pass unremarked.

I don’t, of course, accept that Campbell’s resignation of itself marks the end of a culture of spin in political circles, any more than I would contend that his appointment in 1994 as Tony Blair’s media gauleiter created the spin-culture.

Spin, which I define as the hegemony of style and presentation over substance and ideology, is a post-modern phenomenon that has infected all our institutions and professional practices – including the way we do business.

The early-millennial indications are that we are thoroughly wearied and unsatisfied by this cultural environment and yearn for ideologies and belief systems – if not the ones of old, then new redefined belief systems. In this context, the iconic Campbell’s departure is more a symptom of a cultural shift than its cause.

The Government’s political environment is, nevertheless, a very visible paradigm of this cultural shift. Not just in the circumstances surrounding Iraq and the dreadful and shaming agenda of the Hutton Inquiry, but in the signs that heads of industry are beginning again to pay closer attention to the fundamentals that make the economy work, rather than accept the intangibles of an economic Third Way.

As Blair faces British industry this week, paradoxically he needs Campbell’s undoubted communications skills most, just as he is disposing of them. Say what you like about Campbell, but he possesses a robustness capable of taking on the thick hides of British industry, something his erstwhile boss apparently lacks.

I gather that the slightly mysterious Multinational Chairmen’s Group (MCG) has this week lobbied Blair with the fairly unequivocal message that he had better pull his finger out over industrial policy or they will move their principal operations out of the UK.

In the slightly quirky way in which the British name things, this “chairmen’s” group also includes chief executives, but Blair will be assured that he is dealing with the very top of our industrial hierarchy. The line-up is said to include BP and Shell, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, Vodafone, British American Tobacco, Rio Tinto, HSBC and Unilever.

This isn’t exactly the equivalent of Spain’s Opus Dei, but Blair will have been in no doubt that he is facing the British industrial equivalent of the Mob. These are people who, collectively, can call the economic shots, if they so wish, just as effectively as the trades unions did back in the Seventies.

And it seems that they are heartily sick of a spin-culture in which presentational lip-service is paid to free-market economics, while industry is concurrently burdened with intrusive regulation and ever-higher taxes.

Among their gripes, they claim that the (now diluted) corporate-governance guidelines of former investment banker Derek Higgs have disfranchised chairmen; that public spending is inefficient and wasteful; that, as a consequence, the transport infrastructure is hopeless and getting worse; that non-domiciliary executives are discriminated against and that new caps on personal-pension provision are a hidden super-tax.

The threat is that, since Blair’s Government has created a hostile environment in which to do business, multinational companies will find somewhere more agreeable to base their operations unless some political olive branches are extended.

We have been here before. As my book reveals, a group very similar to the MCG approached Chancellor Gordon Brown in early 2001 and told him that, if the UK did not join the single European currency system as soon as possible, it would hold him personally and publicly responsible.

Subsequent international events have eclipsed the euro issue. But the Government would be ill-advised to suppose that Britain’s pro-euro companies were bluffing. Nor should Blair patronise those who lobby him this week.

It is interesting, incidentally, that this week’s industrial lobbyists have taken their case to Blair, rather than to Brown. This seems to suggest that they are more concerned with tackling the New Labour “project”, which amounts to a tax-and-spend policy while trying to be business-friendly, rather than taking issue with economic specifics.

It’s an important moment for Blair in industrial policy. He is being asked to define what he believes. And, if he is serious about replacing the spin culture with something more substantial, then British industry is entitled to know what that is.

But this isn’t just a challenge for Blair. Frankly, British industry is just as guilty of a spin culture as the world of politics. And not just because it was in thrall to the Blair Project post-1997.

It was British industry, not politicians, which brought us the dot-com boom, a temporary and mad triumph of perceptions over reality. And British businesses have conspired with politicians in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) conspiracy to make industry look “nice”.

If we are to emerge, burnished with new ideologies, from the spin culture of the past two decades, industrialists, as well as politicians, will have to know what they believe. Capitalism, presumably. But American imperialism? A federal Europe? Public-sector economics?

Campbell is not the only one facing a fresh start in the real world. As we emerge from the age of spin, there is much for us all to relearn.

George Pitcher is a founder partner of Luther Pendragon. His book, The Death of Spin, is published by Wiley at £16.99 and is available from amazon.co.uk, wileyeurope.com and bookshops

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