As Keir Starmer’s aides listened to Boris Johnson’s speech in South Tyneside to the CBI last Monday, on the lookout for any political details the Labor leader might use for his own speech later today, they couldn’t believe in their luck.
The Tory government’s dealings with business were already strained, after two budgets to raise taxes, scrapping plans to overhaul the hated corporate tariff system, and Johnson’s criticism of the fuel industry. transport during the fuel crisis.
But any emollience the Prime Minister had hoped to show in his Tyneside speech was overshadowed by his awkward speech – including a long digression on Peppa Pig.
Later that same day, citing the CBI’s first annual report, dating from 1965, Starmer told business leaders that “Britain’s whole future depends on the success of the industry.”
Two years after Labor’s catastrophic defeat in the 2019 general election on a sweeping manifesto that included the nationalization of key public services including rail, mail and broadband, Starmer and his prominent colleagues set foot on their feet in the hope of convincing UK businesses that they are on their side.
Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell led a “tea offensive” among business leaders, then shadow city minister Jonathan Reynolds kept channels open with the financial industry; but both sides say the contact with the better Starmer team is much more regular.
âIt hasn’t been a radical change,â says a senior business official. âUnder Corbyn, and in particular with McDonnell, they were very keen to hear from us and they too saw that as important enough to showcase their economic credibility. What is different in Starmer is that there is more structure and it is much more common.
A supermarket executive said: âRachel Reeves [the current shadow chancellor] is definitely making an effort with business and trying to portray Labor as a business party to an extent that I don’t see with the Tories at the moment. We receive a lot of invitations to round tables and meetings. It’s an active program for her.
Labor now holds regular Zoom meetings with the âB5â group of trade bodies – CBI, Make UK, Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), UK Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors.
Chaired by Starmer, Reeves, the Shadow Trade Secretary, Ed Miliband and others in turn, the meetings initially focused on the challenges businesses faced during the pandemic.
Consultations like these have led Labor to campaign for continued support for business as the Chancellor prepared to turn off the taps in the fall of 2020 and ask for financial help from companies hit by regional restrictions on Covid.
Close contacts continued after the lockdown, however, with topics under discussion shifting to supply chain issues, staff shortages and rising energy costs.
The party has announced a number of pro-business policies in recent months, including a pledge to remove trade tariffs and replace them with a less punitive system for large businesses.
In another seemingly business-like move, Starmer also upset Miliband at the party’s annual conference by pledging not to nationalize the âBig Sixâ of energy companies, a possibility Miliband had left open in interviews and which ‘she shouldn’t have removed from the table yet. .
The Labor conference also saw the abrupt resignation of shadow business minister Andy McDonald, after he was told to oppose a minimum wage of Â£ 15 an hour – a reminder of the skepticism of the party’s left as to the direction of Starmer.
Miliband’s team insists he has played a pivotal role in reshaping the labor relationship with business over the past few months, but Reeves is seen by some party insiders to be a big part of the race, Miliband being more focused on the climate change portion of his thesis – perhaps understandably, with the Cop26 summit being held in Glasgow earlier this month. âYou can see where his heart is,â said a colleague.
Union strategists point out that voters’ perceptions of a party’s economic competence are strongly correlated with seeing it as “business-friendly.” So they hope that by winning over the business community, they can show the public that they are ready to lead what Starmer in his CBI speech called “a tight ship” – something they see as crucial to winning. a general election.
Over the past month, Reeves hosted roundtables with small businesses in the North East and West Midlands, as well as a larger event in Stoke-on-Trent alongside Starmer with a group of around 30 voters of all political stripes.
The fictitious Chancellor brings more than 10 years of experience in banking and financial services, including a stint as an economist at the Bank of England. She speaks of prudent management of public finances, acknowledging a weak point for Labor who cling to the party since the Conservative attacks carried out by George Osborne following the 2008 financial crisis.
Speaking to voters in Stoke earlier this month, she told the crowd that Labor would raise taxes on large digital companies like Amazon while removing tariffs from businesses, in a plan designed to support small businesses and revitalize Main Street.
Irritation against the multinational retailer run by Jeff Bezos has returned time and time again to the former Labor hearts. âWhen Rachel said we needed a level playing field, I think that obviously resonated,â Starmer told the audience.
However, some business leaders remain far from being won over. The boss of a multibillion-pound global investment fund, which owns significant UK infrastructure assets, said that while the Tories “absolutely destroy their reputation … Labor still does no credibility “.
He said that although Labor is “more acceptable” they have “no record”: “You would elect a party that has not been in power for a while and should have extremely clear policies. The door is open for Labor to write a much clearer manifesto than the Conservatives. “
The wave of Conservative tax increases, including tax hikes that hit small businesses, have raised thorns among the traditionally Conservative pro-entrepreneur class.
Craig Beaumont, FSB’s head of external affairs, said: âNo party can afford to take small business votes for granted.
âWork has changed since the Corbyn era and has been keen to listen to the concerns of small businesses. We are very pleased that the party has passed our proposals to remove 200,000 small business tariffs and overhaul the system.
âIf the Conservatives do not want to be outmatched, they urgently need to improve their game.