Comment: Why Labour must promote ethical business

There are huge reputational gains to be made for Labour


There are no doubt a number of reasons for the Labour Party’s defeat in the general election in May 2015, but one major theme has been the idea that Labour could not be trusted with the economy.

Everyone knows that Labour urgently needs to figure out its business strategy to rescue it from even more years of fighting from the sidelines while the Conservative government presses ahead with its ideology in full force.

There is an important point to take away from this though – many people from all parts of society, whether rich or poor, believe that the Conservatives know business.

To much of the electorate, the Tories are clearly a trusted pair of hands in all matters economic; a political party that does not waste money, that helps businesses compete more, that makes businesses more efficient by cutting red tape and that looks to reward hard work.

I do not wish to dwell on an assessment of whether this is correct, although for the record I believe the Tories’ reputation is not deserved. Mainly this is due to their complete failure to make long term investments in vital areas such as early years’ education and mental health care, both of which have the potential for huge economic ramifications – positive ones if they get it right.

Similarly, the Tories’ desperate attempt to reduce the state on a foundation of ideology over sense does not make long term economic sense.

Now though, the Labour Party should embrace the concept of business. It should show voters that Labour values the role of business in society. This can be done in a variety of contexts, but Labour must pick its battles one step at a time.

Today, one of Labour’s major battles is that human rights is fighting a reputation crisis. With various major newspapers ripping the concept of human rights to pieces, many are unimpressed with what they understand human rights to represent.

I have suspicions that the Conservative Party’s proposal to change human rights law in the UK is mainly to trick the public rather than to actually change anything. Specifically, it wishes the public to think it is doing something to address what many believe are overly generous laws being abused by prisoners and terrorists.

Let us then use the business argument to shatter this nonsense. Thankfully today many organisations, both public and private, will often not work with others unless certain conditions of human decency are met. Why is this relevant? What this means is that embracing human rights in the way you do business can give an organisation the competitive advantage.

By being more ethical and respectful of human life, business can grow or at least help itself beat those competitors that give humanity less courtesy. There are huge reputational gains to be made, which will lead to growth, a point which organisations and institutions like The Business and Human Rights Resources Centre and the United Nations are keen to emphasise.

In short, human rights can be good for business.

What does this have to do with Labour? It gives Labour the opportunity to plant two trees with one seed – help to improve the reputation of human rights (a core fundamental of what the Labour Party stands for), while promoting the future of good ethical business.

Human rights can impact business in a number of ways such as fostering non-discrimination based on age, disability, sexual orientation, gender, sex, race, nationality and religion, or the abuse of the public’s privacy and data.

However, sometimes the abuses that need remedying are hidden. For those companies that operate abroad or rely on foreign supply chains we have to look harder to uncover injustices like environmental damage, forced labour and slavery, child labour, degrading treatment of workers and the stealing of people’s land.

Labour may have an opportunity here to change the world, boost profits and win votes at the same time.

Tom McNeil is the director of the Human Rights Act Campaign at Labour Campaign for Human Rights

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