Labour leader Keir Starmer has promised his party would be a “pro-business government,” as he seeks to distance himself from his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.
The opposition leader argued in his first speech to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)’s annual conference on Monday that Labour needed to involve businesses in a policy “rethink” after its defeat at the 2019 election.
He sought to draw a line under the strained relations with business chiefs in recent years under Corbyn, whose radical policy platform and limited vocal support for firms sparked rebukes from the CBI and others. Starmer’s comments won plaudits from the CBI, though his speech was light on policy detail.
“When a business is failing it is often because the management is failing. The Labour party is now under new management,” Starmer told the virtual conference, watched by thousands of business leaders.
The former director of public prosecutions highlighted his father’s work in a “steady, secure job” as a toolmaker, saying: “I know that a thriving business is not just about making profit. It’s a source of good jobs, of meaning, and dignity.”
“The Labour party I lead will always recognise the importance of supporting business.”
He said a Labour government would provide incentives, corporate structures, investment and stability to help firms plan for the long term, including investing in skills.
“We need world-class vocational education. Life-long learning. In-work training. And for a Labour government led by me this will be a priority like never before,” he said.
WATCH: Starmer says delay introducing lockdown will have ‘very real’ human cost
But he said Labour would “ask for something in return” from firms, including looking “beyond the next quarterly statement” at long-term prosperity and the interests of communities.
Firms will be expected to play their part in moving to a net-zero economy, work with trade unions, invest in skills and local young people, compete fairly and “play by the rules, in spirit and in letter.”
A post-war bargain between employers and workers that saw prosperity shared through higher pay was “no longer being honoured,” with earnings stagnating over the past decade as shareholders’ returns kept rising, he said. Starmer warned it was fuelling resentment, and the country needed a “more sustainable model.”
He declined to answer directly when asked by journalists if Labour had dropped more radical Corbyn-era policies including part-nationalising BT.
He said Labour would work “with business” on its manifesto after its election defeat. But he also said there were “challenges to the way businesses are owned,” backing rail nationalisation and condemning the Conservatives’ privatisation of probation services.
The speech earned him praise from the CBI’s leadership. Its president, Lord Bilimoria, praised the opposition leader next to him on stage as “sensible” and “thoughtful,” and highlighted the “extraordinary level of partnership” between Labour and the CBI in recent months.
Starmer's speech also contained wide-ranging criticism of the government's handling of the pandemic, with a notable attempt to pin much of the responsibility on the chancellor for failures.
The chancellor's name was "all over" the long delay introducing a new England lockdown after scientists demanded tougher measures. "His decision to block a circuit breaker...will now mean businesses have to close for longer," claimed Starmer.
WATCH: Business secretary Alok Sharma will support businesses through the pandemic