Labour leader Ed Miliband hits back over big business letter

Labour party leader Ed Miliband conducts a Q&A session at David Brown Gear Systems in Huddersfield while on the General Election campaign trail.
Labour party leader Ed Miliband conducts a Q&A session at David Brown Gear Systems in Huddersfield while on the General Election campaign trail.

Doncaster North MP, Ed Miliband, has sought to counter the impact of a business letter backing Conservatives over the economy, by pitching the General Election as a battle between a Labour Party backing working families and Tories who want to look after ‘a few big firms and individuals at the top’.

More than 100 senior executives from some of Britain’s biggest firms signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph backing today’s cut to 20 per cent in corporation tax and warning that a ‘change in course’ in economic policy would risk jobs and deter investment.

David Cameron claimed the letter as proof that business backs the Tories’ “long-term economic plan” and is fearful of Labour victory in the May 7 election.

But Labour - who were launching new plans to outlaw “exploitative” zero hours contracts - retorted that the signatories represent only a tiny proportion of British business and had not mentioned Labour by name in their letter.

Answering questions from workers at a factory in Huddersfield, Mr Miliband set out his promise of legislation in a Labour government’s first Queen’s Speech guaranteeing employees the right to a regular contract after 12 weeks of working regular hours in practice with an employer.

The Labour leader did not directly refer to the Telegraph letter, but said: “We have seen today there is a big choice in this election. l believe it is when working families succeed that Britain succeeds. The Conservatives believe that by looking after a few big firms and individuals at the top, everyone else will be OK.

“They won’t end the exploitation of zero hours contracts. We will, because we know that security for working people is the bedrock of what makes Britain work.

“Less than a week ago, you may have heard the Prime Minister say that he couldn’t live on a zero hours contract. Well, I couldn’t live on a zero hours contract either. I’ve got a simple principle - if it is not good enough for us, it’s not good enough for you and it’s not good enough for Britain.

“That’s the way I will run our country. One rule for all.”

The letter was particularly awkward for Labour, as its signatories included at least five previous party backers, including Dragon’s Den star Duncan Bannatyne and theatrical impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh.

But Sir Cameron has since made large donations to the Tories, and several other signatories have links to the party, including Conservative peers Lord (Stuart) Rose, Lord Bamford and Baroness (Karren) Brady.

Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna played down its significance, telling the BBC: “This was a letter organised by the Conservative Party in a Conservative-supporting newspaper. We’ve got almost five million businesses in our country. At best you could say the people who signed this represent 0.002 per cent of them.”

Labour has said it would return corporation tax to 21 per cent - still the lowest in the G7 - in order to fund a £400 business rate break for 1.5 million small businesses, he said.

The letter did not give explicit backing for any party in the May 7 election, but said: “This Conservative-led Government has been good for business and has pursued policies which have supported investment and job creation.”

Chancellor George Osborne’s progressive reduction of corporation tax to 20% was “very important in showing the UK is open for business”, it said, adding: “We believe a change in course will threaten jobs and deter investment. This would send a negative message about Britain and put the recovery at risk.”

Reaction to Labour’s policy launch was mixed. CBI director-general John Cridland warned Labour were “playing with the jobs that many firms and many workers value and need”, while Christian May of the Institute Of Directors described the proposals as “unnecessary and potentially damaging”.

But TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “We need a fairer system that guarantees zero-hours workers decent rights at work and stops them from being treated like second-class employees.”