Keir Starmer has used his speech to the Confederation of British Industry this morning to blame Rishi Sunak for government inaction over coronavirus restrictions and accuse the Chancellor of blocking a circuit breaker.
Addressing the virtual conference, the opposition leader described the decision not to implement a two- to three-week national lockdown earlier as “his decision”, referring to Rishi Sunak who reportedly opposed the move in cabinet.
Accusing Sunak of trying to “pretend that you can protect the economy without controlling the virus”, Starmer said: “The impact on business – and jobs – will be severe. Make no mistake, the Chancellor’s name is all over this.”
The Labour leader also used the opportunity to emphasise that Labour is under new leadership and suggest that the party will be taking a different approach to the one adopted under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
He told the CBI: “I’m under no illusion about the work we have to do if we’re to win back your trust. We have bridges to build. And today I want to set out the new partnership I want to build between British business and the Labour Party.”
Starmer added: “I believe we all share the idea that business and government should work together in the national interest. In recent years, I feel that partnership has broken down. But a Labour government under my leadership will look to renew and rebuild that partnership.”
He praised businesses for ‘stepping up’ during Covid, and said his “simple” aim was that “under a Labour government every community and every town has world-class local businesses” that are “a source of pride, jobs and prosperity”.
The party leader concluded his speech by reinforcing the message of Labour’s ‘A new leadership’ slogan, saying: “When a business is failing it is often because the management is failing. The Labour Party is now under new management.”
Below is the full text of Keir Starmer’s speech to the Confederation of British Industry.
“Thank you Carolyn for that introduction. And for everything that you’ve done, over the past five years, as director general of the CBI. Carolyn and I got to know each other during the twists and turns of the Brexit process and from then on Carolyn’s always been there to help and advise. I value her support and friendship immensely. Carolyn: the CBI, businesses and the country owe you a huge debt.
“It’s a pleasure to be able to speak to you today and to do so for the first time as leader of the Labour Party. I’m under no illusion about the work we have to do if we’re to win back your trust. We have bridges to build. And today I want to set out the new partnership I want to build between British business and the Labour Party.
“I want to start, though, by addressing the immediate crisis the country is facing. I don’t blame the government for coronavirus. But I do blame it for the way it’s been handled. And I can’t forgive the catalogue of mistakes that have cost lives and livelihoods.
“The two pillars of the government’s approach: The £12bn track and trace system, and local restrictions, have been swept away by the second wave and shown to be totally inadequate.
“Even more unforgivable, the central lesson of the first wave was ignored: That if you are to control this virus you have to act early and decisively and that if you don’t the cost to people’s health and to the health of the economy is much, much worse.
“One of the things I’ve learnt from this crisis is that it exposes leadership like nothing else. On that count the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have failed. They failed to learn. They failed to listen. And they failed to lead. The result is tragic – but all too predictable.
“On 21st September, the government’s own scientists – SAGE – recommended an “urgent” two-to-three week circuit breaker in order to prevent the virus getting out of control. On that day, there were 11 deaths from Covid 19 and there were just over 4,000 Covid infections. The Prime Minister failed to heed that warning.
“40 days later, when he finally decided to announce a longer 4-week national lockdown, those figures had increased to 326 deaths a day, and 22,000 Covid cases. That is the human cost of the government’s inaction.
“And the impact on business – and jobs – will be severe. Make no mistake, the Chancellor’s name is all over this. His decision to block a circuit breaker, to dismiss it as a “blunt instrument” and to pretend that you can protect the economy without controlling the virus will now mean that businesses have to close for longer, more people will lose their jobs, and the public finances will be worse than they needed to be.
“It makes me so angry and so frustrated that when the British people – and British businesses – have given so much and made so many sacrifices, they have been let down so badly by the government.
“It’s now essential that tough national measures are taken to get the virus back under control. Better late than never. And Labour will provide the votes the Prime Minister needs to be sure of getting this through parliament.
“But we’ll also be clear it must be accompanied by a comprehensive economic support package. The Chancellor has already announced three economic plans in the last four weeks – all were insufficient. All are out of date. That is no way for businesses and working people to plan and prepare.
“The Chancellor needs to come to parliament today and outline the full package of support. It must be equivalent to the package put in place in March, it must support businesses forced to close and at risk of closing, and it must protect people’s jobs and pay – including by closing gaps in support for the self-employed.
“The government was slow to act – again. But it can’t now waste these four weeks. They must be used to fix test, trace and isolate – and to give control to local authorities; to get a grip on messaging and rebuild public trust; and to provide a clear and transparent roadmap to protect businesses and the NHS over the months to come.
“I know how difficult this next month will be and the months to come. Now, more than ever, we need to stand together as a country, as families, and as communities, and to show – once again – that at a moment of national crisis, the British people always stand by those in need.
“I know business will step up – as you did in March and as you have done throughout this crisis. I know from close quarters how important a good business can be to families and to communities. My dad was a toolmaker. He worked on the factory floor his entire life. A steady, secure job allowed him to build a better life for his family. He built a platform for me. He gave me the tools to get on.
“I know that a thriving business is not just about making profit, it’s a source of good jobs, of meaning, and dignity. It’s why when I see businesses struggling being forced to close or to pull out of the communities they’ve been a part of for decades, I know the impact that will have. Not on profit, but on people. And that’s why the Labour Party I lead will always recognise the importance of supporting business.
“I believe we all share the idea that business and government should work together in the national interest. In recent years, I feel that partnership has broken down. But a Labour government under my leadership will look to renew and rebuild that partnership.
“I think that this government has let you down badly. Not just on coronavirus but also because just at this moment the Prime Minister has decided to play needless brinkmanship over a Brexit deal.
“The last thing I want to do is to refight the battle over Brexit. That argument is over. It’s time to move on and to adapt, as I know you are trying to do. But the government is making that so much harder by creating an atmosphere of huge uncertainty.
“From your point of view and mine, it’s very simple. The EU is by far our biggest trading partner. We need a good trade deal to protect jobs and to protect businesses. The Prime Minister said he would get one. In fact he said he had one. So he should get on with it. Stop fuelling uncertainty at the worst possible time and secure the deal he promised.
“But whatever comes of the Brexit negotiations, that will not fix the long-term problems with the British economy. As a nation we simply aren’t ready for the high-tech economy of the 2020s and 2030s. We don’t invest anywhere near enough in skills in people in science or in the future.
“80% of companies have told the CBI that a lack of skills is harming our competitiveness. More than half of the working age population lack the digital skills required for the modern workplace. And it’s estimated that by 2030 a further seven million people, a fifth of the workforce, could be under-skilled for their jobs.
“When I was Shadow Immigration Minister, I visited businesses across the country and asked them what the single biggest obstacle was to their success. Every time, they said the same thing: skills. If we’re to compete in the decades to come academic skills alone won’t be enough.
“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.
“Because the days when the school gates opened to let you out and the factory gates opened to let you in have long gone. And you know as well as I do that there’s only one way to create the high-tech economy we need to be. And that’s through investing in and training the next generation with the skills they need.
“But for a decade we’ve not invested in the future, and one of the consequences is that we’re a profoundly unbalanced and unequal country. Our great towns and cities in the North West, the Midlands and the North East – once the cradle of our industrial revolution – have been ignored and marginalised. This has to change.
“Because we cannot go forward as a country if we don’t spread the rewards of prosperity more fairly and if we don’t close the productivity gap across regions and nations.
“I believe Britain can – and must – create a more dynamic, innovative and high-tech economy fit for the 2020s and 2030s. Our best days are ahead of us, but the truth is: at present, our economy rewards short-termism. It’s low-paid, low-skilled and unbalanced. I know that frustrates you as much as it does me.
“In the last decade something profound has happened in our economy. For years, the essential bargain of post-war Britain was that for every boost in prosperity that reward found its way to the factory floor. But that bargain has broken down.
“Earnings have stagnated since 2010. The cost of living – the price of food, housing, utility bills – has gone up and the returns to shareholders have carried on rising. That bargain is no longer being honoured. It’s fuelling resentment, anger and injustice.
“Together, we have to find a solution. So that when this crisis is over, we build a more sustainable model and a new partnership that can bring businesses and working people together.
“I can pledge to you today that a Labour government under my leadership will back British businesses – to grow, to succeed and to expand. We’ll provide the incentives, the corporate structures, the investment and the stability you need to plan for the long term. We’ll champion businesses of all sizes and in all parts of the country. And we’ll always recognise businesses for what they are – an indispensable part of creating prosperity, good jobs and strong communities.
“My aim is simple: that under a Labour government every community and every town has world-class local businesses. Businesses that are a source of pride, jobs and prosperity.
“But like any joint venture, we’ll ask for something in return. We’ll expect businesses to look beyond the next quarterly statement or annual report and to focus on long-term prosperity and the long-term interests of local communities. We’ll expect every business to play its part in delivering the transition to a net zero economy as soon as possible. We’ll expect businesses to work with trade unions, to treat their workers with fairness and dignity, to invest in their skills and their futures, and to provide the kind of secure foundations that a life and future can be built upon.
“We’ll expect businesses to compete fairly, and to play by the rules, in spirit and in letter. We’ll expect businesses to leave a lasting footprint in local towns and communities – working with local schools and colleges to upskill and empower young people. And we’ll expect every business to consider the role it can play in promoting greater social justice and tackling the deep-seated inequalities that exist in our society.
“Most businesses already do this. Many go further. Every week I meet fantastic British businesses that show what can be done – even in this climate – to invest in people and in our communities. But if we’re to make this a reality across the country and to build the new partnership businesses need for the 2020s and 2030s it needs an active, pro-business government. And that’s what Labour under my leadership will offer.
“When a business is failing it is often because the management is failing. The Labour Party is now under new management. We recognise that businesses with high standards are the only way to create a good economy and the only way to fund a good society. I know we share those objectives. We do not seek growth for its own sake. We seek it because, by improving living standards, we can grow as people and as a country.
“So I want to thank the CBI and British business for everything you’ve done and I look forward to what we can achieve together.”