A leaked email from Keir Starmer’s director of policy that hit the headlines this week contained an interesting line: that Labour must become ‘unashamedly pro-business’ in order to ‘be the party of working people and their communities’. This has caused predictable outrage on the left of the party. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Tories have been quick to mock the whole idea. At this week’s PMQs, Boris reminded Starmer that at the last election Labour wanted to dismantle capitalism – now it wants to be the party of business? Really?
But the Tories need to be careful about how hard they laugh at this one. While Starmer’s bid to make Labour the home of British business has so many things going against it that on balance it will probably fail, if Starmer does succeed that could well win him the next general election.
Before they mock too much, the Conservative party may wish to think about how much their relations with the business community have soured in the past five years. The Tories have left the field wide open for another party to become the party of business, if only another political entity in the UK had the intelligence and the gumption to seize the opportunity. The working assumption that no other party can move into this space is complacent.
For a start, deriding Starmer for his desire to make his party pro-business isn’t as clever as it first appears, even on the surface. What Boris is actually doing, at least if Starmer persists with this line, is highlighting the fact that Labour have changed. It seems the Tories also believe that because of Labour’s recent pro-flag fiasco, the same rules apply to Starmer’s attempt to make Labour seem more pro-business than the Tories. But that’s probably not the case.
For a start, no one doubts the sincerity of the Conservative party’s patriotism. While some on the further reaches of the right wish the Tories would do more about illegal immigration or still have the hump about lockdown, no one seriously believes that Boris and the Conservatives dislike the Union Jack. In other words, the Tories own this arena and are in a good position to guffaw at Starmer’s attempts to move onto the patch.
It’s different with business. Brexit – the way it was handled, particularly the last-second agreement of the deal – has annoyed a lot of the business community. Worse, that irritation is growing, not subsiding the further we get from the end of the transition period. Boris infamously was supposed to have grumbled a two-word invective in the direction of business, something many people haven’t forgotten about.
The only reason this hasn’t been a weakness for the Tories is that Labour had a leader for four and a half years who thought Chavez’s Venezuela was a model government. Although John McDonnell tried to charm the business community while he was shadow chancellor, it was never going to work given the party’s leftist monetary and financial policy.
That’s all changed. Not many people paid attention to Anneliese Dodds’ speech last month, outlining Labour’s new economic direction, which is a shame given how monumental a shift in British politics it represented. No one outside of the Westminster bubble will have taken any notice of the shadow chancellor’s speech, I realise – but leading members of the business community certainly did. Dodds’ lecture guaranteed any approach Labour wants to make to British business from here on will get a much warmer reception.
Of course, Starmer has to prove that he really means it with some eye-catching policies. And, he has to bring most of his party along for the ride. It’s easy to understand the urge in Conservative party HQ to simply assume Starmer will fail and not worry about it unduly. Yet surely it is worth asking: what if Starmer succeeds?
One only has to remember how Blair won business over during his ten years as Prime Minister. It is one of the things that was key to his electoral success – and something that made it impossible for the Tories to win on a large scale for a long time. It may be that it is too soon after Corbyn for a pro-business pitch to work. But it is also possible that the Tories taking the business community for granted in the face of Brexit and Covid has opened up a space for Labour to move in quicker than anyone might have expected.
Labour has shown in the past that it can become the party of business if it puts enough energy into it. They have also previously demonstrated that they can use this to become wildly electorally successful. The Tories might want to stop assuming Starmer can’t make this pitch work and start wondering what happens if he does.