Ed Miliband seemed to hit paydirt in September when he pitched himself as the politician who was on the side of the little guy with a promise to freeze fuel bills and tax big business more heavily in his efforts to “stand up to the strong”.
While his Conservative rivals denounced him as an anti-business socialist, they also scrambled to respond. Less than month after the Labour leader delivered his pledge to the British people, David Cameron had put the coalition’s “green taxes” under review as he too sought to cut bills.
It is the latest salvo in a running battle between politicians and business that began in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Mr Miliband captured the mood in 2011 when he sketched out his own version of “responsible capitalism” that set “predators” against “producers”. The presentation was clumsy but his political instinct was spot on: Ordinary people struggling to cope with a decade of austerity are now demanding that their politicians make sure the wealthy pay their dues.
This is a battle that has seen several corporate casualties. The City has faced extra taxation, chief executives of several major companies have been forced out, and politicians have taken to naming and shaming global firms for their tax affairs.
The growing hostility between the corporate class and the ordinary worker is in part an inevitable consequence of recession as the spoils of capitalism dwindle, reminding a struggling “squeezed middle” of the acute disparities of wealth between a corporate elite and the rest.
But those tensions have also been fuelled by the media.
The emergence of social media has created a forum for resentments to gather steam – note the #boycottstarbucks campaign – while the public bail-out of Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds TSB in 2008 catapulted finance from the business pages of newspapers into the mainstream.
The scrutiny of banks and other big corporations by lobby journalists has been brutal for business. Financial journalists assessing the performance of the big utility firms, banks or consumer goods companies are sympathetic to the notion of shareholder returns, dividend payouts and heady incentive packages to attract and retain the best talent. Their colleagues on the political news pages are far less forgiving, and business has been slow to adapt to that.
Big companies are kidding themselves if they think this anti-business rhetoric will dissipate now green shoots are poking through the soil. 2015 has already been dubbed the “Living Standards” election, and politicians are now in competition for policies that appeal to voters struggling in a post-credit crunch world, with Labour having thrown the first blow and even the Tories launching an assault on ‘Rip-off Britain’ as they set down lines of attack in what is set to be a bitter fight.
This time around business would do better to prepare a pre-emptive strike.