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4 November 2020updated 13 Sep 2021 5:07am

Why Keir Starmer needs to crack Labour’s “business problem“

Labour has always had troubled relations with capital – but Starmer’s CBI speech to business leaders could herald a new era. 

By Philip Collins

Labour’s troubled relations with capital is in the title of Edmund Dell’s alarming study A Strange, Eventful History. Dell is a rarity in Labour circles as a former ICI executive who became a trade minister under Harold Wilson. Dell tells the story of a series of economic nostrums – socialist economics, nationalisation, planning, incomes policy, punitive taxation – that all have to be abandoned on their collision with reality. In a largely unnoticed speech to the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) on 2 November, Keir Starmer spoke substantively for the first time on business and the economy, Labour’s great historic flaw.

The Labour leader’s speech was at least as notable for what it omitted as for what it contained. There was nothing on the level of corporation tax, for example, which was enlisted to fund utopia under John McDonnell. There was, in fact, nothing on taxation at all and precious little policy as yet, beyond the usual trinity of aspiration – investment, skills and science. Yet, if there had been an audience present, Starmer’s words would have flattered them. This was a speech that neither of his predecessors as Labour leader ever chose to give: there was no distinction between producer and predator (Ed Miliband), no laurels for small business and calumny for big corporations.

Instead, Starmer introduced his father the toolmaker, who worked on the factory floor all his life. Although I have always felt there is unexplored metaphorical potential in that Jeremy Corbyn’s father was an expert in power rectifiers, this was not a speech Corbyn ever gave. Neither did Ed Miliband labour the fact that his father was an expert in the non-existent parliamentary road to socialism – a claim his son set out to prove.

Since the financial crash of 2008 the Labour Party has barely tried to engage business, but this will be an important signal that it is, as Starmer likes to say, under new management. Depriving his immediate predecessor of the party whip days before addressing the CBI was the most dramatic repudiation anyone could have hoped for. The leader before Corbyn, though, remains rather oddly miscast as the shadow business secretary.

Fortunately, there is an elegant solution at hand. The government signalled its lack of interest in climate change by deleting the words from cabinet titles. Boris Johnson’s last-minute replacement at the CBI, Alok Sharma, has the words “business”, “energy” and “industrial strategy” in his ministerial title, but not climate change. The only minister whose title betokens a problem exists is the unheralded Martin Callanan, the junior minister for climate change and corporate responsibility.

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[see also: Keir Starmer’s quest to reshape Labour]

In November next year COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, will take place in Glasgow. Labour could signal both the gravity of the issue and the government’s culpable lack of interest in it by appointing a shadow climate change secretary even in the absence of a full-time minister. Ed Miliband, whose best moment in politics was his performance at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, speaks with knowledge and passion on the subject. Red Ed should have become Green Ed long ago, but it is not too late and the opportunity could be the greater because there is no bigger question on which Donald Trump and Joe Biden cultivate their distance than on climate change.

Most American elections matter much less to British politics than obsessive British analysts think. This one, though, might be different, because it may portend a return to politics as usual – or, at least, the appearance of it. The defining events of recent British politics, which still spook much of the commentary, are the Brexit referendum of 2016 and the general election of 2017. Combined with a Trump victory, the days of 2016 and 2017 were those in which all that was solid seemed to melt into air. The old analytical heuristics stopped working. New and mysterious forces were at work making feasible the once fond notion that a Labour leader who aggressively renounced capitalism could, after all, become prime minister.

Before 2017 British politics was, as Ronald Reagan once said, simple although hard to do. The party closest to the middle won. The party that ranked highest on the economy and leadership couldn’t lose. If you followed those precepts, and screened out all the campaign activity, you never got it wrong. But in 2017, this all seemed to collapse in a new dispensation in which identity trumped material status. New political routes seemed to open up for all parties, one of which was a left-wing road to power on which Labour could recover some of its vintage confident hostility to capital.

It may be that the economic aftermath of Covid-19 will make politics material again. The 2008 financial crisis was the death knell of incumbents. At the subsequent elections, the governments of the United States, Great Britain, France, Spain and Italy all changed. Only the unconquerable Angela Merkel survived. President Trump’s fate could be the harbinger of peril to come for all those in charge when the pandemic struck.

Unemployment could hit 10 per cent or more. Wages will remain stagnant. Brexit will be doing its creeping damage. The public finances will be a mess and there will have been a row between the fiscal conservative in No 11 and the erratic spendthrift in No 10 about how to raise money. It was notable that, in his CBI speech, Starmer opened with a critique of the Chancellor.

As England enters lockdown again, the politics of the economy are unreal. Rishi Sunak hands out money and his shadow Anneliese Dodds writes to him demanding more. The real challenge will be the opposite of this. Labour has spent a decade failing to work out what it means to be a social democrat without money. If Starmer has the tools to crack that conundrum, he is in business. 

[see also: What we learned from this week’s PMQs]

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This article appears in the 04 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos