Why are the Tories backing one set of pharmaceutical bosses and Labour another?
The prospect of US drugs giant Pfizer taking over Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca has divided the British establishment.
Both firms are themselves the result of repeated mergers, in an industry dominated by a dwindling number of ever bigger conglomerates.
Much of the research these firms do is aimed at overtaking each other in a race for the most lucrative patents. So when they merge there is duplication—and room for bosses to make cuts.
AstraZeneca bosses claim they are being undervalued, and have invested in important research that will pay off in the next decade.
Pfizer bosses say they don’t plan big cuts to AstraZeneca’s workforce or facilities in Britain.
But Kraft made similar promises when it took over Cadbury in 2010. In the long run, the merger can only mean job losses, whether in Britain or to AstraZeneca’s workforce in Sweden or Pfizer’s in the US.
The Tories will back big business whatever it means for workers. They don’t care if jobs are lost, or if the merged company has more clout to fix high prices for medicines.
But as Labour leader Ed Miliband reminded us only last week, his party is resolutely pro-business too.
It has stumbled into opposing the takeover not to save jobs, but gambling that biomedical research can kickstart British industry.
In an echo of Miliband’s “One Nation” rhetoric last year, he hopes this rather distant prospect can unite bosses and workers behind a common national interest.
But there is no such thing.British bosses have no reason to be less vicious than foreign bosses. And workers in Britain have the same interest as their colleagues abroad.
It would be a disaster for them to compete over pay and conditions to see whose jobs will be spared the axe. Yet this is the inevitable result if workers put nation before class.
It would also give a further boost to racists such as Ukip who have ridden to success on a wave of anti-immigrant scapegoating—not least Gordon Brown’s revival of the toxic slogan “British jobs for British workers”.
Protecting AstraZeneca could mean giving it millions in indirect subsidies that could be better spent on services—only for it to be wiped out in a new takeover a few years down the line.
That’s why the Tories haven’t followed Miliband in betting against the market.
It’s true that AstraZeneca’s resources shouldn’t be squandered. They could be used to find new cures and treatments.
But this would mean taking it under public ownership and running it for people not profit—the sort of thing Miliband keeps ruling out.