“A new partnership for prosperity” – Keir Starmer’s speech to CBI conference

Keir Starmer
© Rupert Rivett/Shutterstock.com

Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Labour leader Keir Starmer at the Confederation of British Industry Conference today:

Thank you Brian, and thank you, conference. It’s a privilege to be here in Birmingham to address you at such a pivotal moment for our country. And here at the Vox, in the NEC, a place where so many greats of music and theatre have played. Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Justin Bieber – he’s coming here soon – and who could forget in 2019 the all-time favourite of the CBI – Peppa Pig. Yes, she played here too.

But look – I’m here today to talk about Labour’s plan for Britain. How, together, we can build a fairer, greener, more dynamic country. A nation where working people succeed, where aspiration is rewarded. A Britain with its confidence, its hope and its future back.

I come with a simple message: Labour is ready. Ready to give Britain the clear economic leadership it needs. Ready to work with you to drive our country forward. Not just a pro-business party but a party that is proud of being pro-business. That respects the contribution profit makes to jobs, growth and our tax base, that gets that working people want success as well as support, understands that backing private enterprise is the only way Britain pays its way in the world.

Mark my words: this is a matter of conviction for me, and I’ve united my party behind it. Anyone who came to our conference in the summer, anyone I’ve met since being leader, more than a hundred CEOs in the last six months alone, knows this already. This is a different Labour Party and there is no going back. We’re ready for partnership.

And let’s be frank – because we need to be. Partnership is not a “nice to have”, it’s now an economic imperative. I don’t want to waste too much time today talking about the government, but the economic damage they’ve done to our country is immense. They’ve put our public finances in a perilous position, wasted the chance to transform our potential in an era of low interest rates, created an economy with weak foundations.

This isn’t about global shocks – that’s just an excuse. Nobody criticises the government for not anticipating the war in Ukraine or denies the war was the spark for the cost-of-living crisis. But the war didn’t ban onshore wind, the war didn’t scrap home insulation, and the war didn’t stall British nuclear energy.

And when it comes to economic growth the verdict of the former Chancellor is right – they’ve created a “vicious cycle of stagnation” and that’s why every crisis hits Britain harder than our competitors. The only country in the G7 still poorer than it was before the pandemic. Disposable income back to 2013 levels. The worst decade for growth in two centuries.

That’s why we need a new partnership. Economic growth is the oxygen for our ambitions – the lifeblood of a strong society and a dynamic economy.

But we have to confront the reality of our position. The lessons of the past twelve years can’t be ignored. I mean – just stop for a moment and think what working people have been through. How they were told “we’re all in it together” – then they paid for a mess made by banks. They cried out for economic change in a referendum but saw their calls go unanswered. And they united to defeat a deadly virus, only to see the government break the rules that they respected.

And now – a winter like no other. The biggest hit to living standards in British history. Where millions, the length and breadth of our country, will go without food or heating. Once again asked to pay the price.

Don’t get me wrong – I know people in this room are struggling too. Your borrowing rates – through the roof. Energy costs – astronomical. More small businesses going under now than at any time since records began. And I know that every single one is a personal tragedy – an ambition, a dream, an investment in a better future, gone.

No mistake – it’s tough and it will be tough for a while. But that’s why we need to answer the burning question – what will we do differently? How will we help restore the contract that says: “Work hard and Britain will give you a fair chance”.

Because let me tell you that’s not how working people feel about our country right now – not this winter. So this has to be a turning point. Britain needs a new business model and that will be hard. Changing a business model is hard – you all know that.

Nonetheless, it’s time for all of us – government, business, trade unions – to get behind the idea, both basic and radical, that our country can grow in a way that serves working people, that higher productivity can come from unlocking their potential, that we can work together to put their interests first.

This has to be the common goal of our partnership. And it must set a new direction on growth, a new way of governing, that at times will challenge our instincts. No more trickle-down experiments – that idea has been tested to destruction.

But equally – if the South East races ahead, “redistribution” can’t be our one-word plan for the rest of Britain. You can still grow an economy that way – of course you can. But it’s not enough.

Working people want growth from the grassroots – jobs that are well paid and secure, communities standing on their own feet, public services strong enough to help them succeed.

So I promise you now, my Labour government will care – must care – as much about raising productivity everywhere, as we have done in the past about redistribution. We’re going to throw everything at growing our collective contribution – our productive capacity – in every community.

And that takes us inevitably to the supply-side of the economy. That’s why our first priority on tax has always been to scrap business rates. We will level the playing field for our high streets. And, with help from Lord Jim O’Neil, we’ll make Britain the best place in the world to start a new business.

But we also need to look at the supply-side differently – it’s not just about tax and enterprise. Take the current state of our labour market. So much of this comes back to public services. Yes, there are other factors, but you can’t tell me the number of older people falling out of work has nothing to do with the millions stuck on NHS waiting lists or that the growing number of people suffering with mental health isn’t a drag on our productivity. No – the state of our public services is an economic crisis just as much as a social crisis.

So we will launch the biggest training programme since the creation of the NHS – increase capacity with more doctors, more nurses, more health visitors, reform the employment service to get more people back to work, give everyone who needs it access to mental health treatment within four weeks, and build a modern childcare system that supports parents – especially women – to flourish. This is what the US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen calls: “modern supply-side economics”. And that’s the philosophy that will drive us to do the hard yards on growth.

But we’ll also need to be pragmatic on the basic lack of people. We won’t ignore the need for workers to come to this country. We can’t have a situation, as we did with HGV drivers, where temporary shortages threaten to cripple entire sectors of our economy. That would be anti-growth and anti-business.

But I want to be clear here – with my Labour government, any movement in our points-based migration system – whether via the skilled worker route, or the shortage occupations list – will come alongside new conditions for business. We will expect you to bring forward a clear plan to boost skills and more training, for better pay and conditions, for investment in new technology. We can talk about how this is done – dialogue is at the heart of partnership but negotiation with trade unions will be part of it. I said at the TUC conference: my Labour Party is unashamedly pro-business and I say here today that trade unions must be a crucial part of our partnership.

But our common goal must be to help the British economy off its immigration dependency to start investing more in training workers who are already here. Migration is part of our national story – always has been, always will be, and the Labour Party will never diminish the contribution it makes to our economy, to public services, to your businesses and our communities.

But let me tell you – the days when low pay and cheap labour are part of the British way on growth must end. This isn’t about Brexit. All around the world, business is waking up to the fact we live in a new era for labour. And while they’re adapting, our low-wage model is holding us back. It’s why we’ve set out a new deal for working people that will deliver higher pay, stronger rights and better work – not just for social justice, but also for the new reality on growth.

Let me give you an example – technology. Britain has fewer industrial robots than almost every comparable [country]. We’re behind Germany, France, Spain, Slovenia, Slovakia, Belgium – it’s a long list. And in terms of competition over the long run, one that borders on a disaster.

Now, I know most businesses get this. I’ve seen for myself how you invest in your people and their productivity. At Vaillant in Derbyshire, I met the apprentices using their skills in conjunction with the new technologies of heat pumps. That technology will continue to adapt and those apprentices will be at the forefront of that change. Working today, training for the opportunities of the future.

But when we look at the economy as a whole, it can seem like we’re more comfortable hiring people to work in low-paid, insecure, sometimes exploitative contracts, than we are investing in the new technology that delivers for workers, productivity and our country.

And we can’t compete like that. Britain’s low-pay model has to go. It doesn’t serve working people. It’s not compatible with grassroots growth.

So let me tell you what is. The three big priorities for my Labour Government, the principles our partnership must deliver to drive Britain forward. They are:

One – economic stability.

Two – higher skills.

Three – green growth.

Let me take them one by one, starting with economic stability. Because, as you know, stability is the bedrock – everything else depends on it. If we’ve learnt nothing else these past 12 years, it’s that chaos has a cost. That’s why every policy my Labour Party announces will always be fully costed. We’re determined to reduce debt as a share of our economy – sound money in our public finances must come first. And we accept what this means – accept that we won’t be able to do things – good Labour things – as quickly as we might like.

The lesson of the last few months is stark – lose control of the economy and its businesses and working people who pick up the bill. And I won’t let that happen again.

But real economic stability has to be about much more than public finances. It has to be about providing the right conditions to plan and invest, to think about long-term strategy, not just short-term fixes, to create confidence through certainty. That’s the argument for partnership – it’s why we’re so committed to a modern industrial strategy.

It’s not about the size of the state – it’s about what the state does, how it supports businesses to innovate and grow. Brings in the creative brilliance of our scientists and universities. Applies them to creating the industries of the future and uses whatever tool the job requires. Procurement, R&D investment, patient finance, a strategic plan for infrastructure and supply chains, led by an institution – a new industrial strategy council – that sits outside the political cycle.

I know this isn’t the sort of stuff that sets Westminster pulses racing – not a bit of it. But I tell you this – in every one of our competitors, it’s the bread and butter of responsible economic management.

Yesterday, I went on the gov.uk website in search of the government’s industrial strategy. This is what I found: “The aim of the industrial strategy was to boost productivity by backing businesses to create good jobs”.

“Was”! And scratched across the top is one word: ‘ARCHIVED’ Doesn’t that just tell you everything? This government has archived Britain’s growth. That’s why situations like British Volt keep happening. Why the CEO of Johnson Matthey says we’re falling behind in the race for clean hydrogen. Why electric car manufacturers are leaving Britain in droves.

Our aversion to proper, long-term industrial strategy is costing us billions already but even worse – it’s costing us the foundations of a more prosperous future.

And conference – so will the status quo on skills. Any serious plan for growth must accept the need to transform how our country trains people for work. That’s why we’re committed to changing the way government supports businesses to get the skills that you need.

At this conference last year, I announced that Lord Blunkett would lead our council of skills advisors. And this year, I’m pleased to announce that he’s delivered that report, and we are going to deliver on skills.

The apprenticeship levy is not flexible enough. Don’t get me wrong – apprenticeships are a gold standard qualification. Their record in tackling the cultural snobbery associated with vocational learning is second to none. But alongside them, we also need to fund the training that works for you.

The need for technology short courses that train coders in weeks, that help younger workers get promoted, the training that supports older workers to flourish, or re-train as something new. And let me tell you from personal experience – there’s nothing wrong with changing career in your fifties.

But the bottom line is this. You need more control over what training your levy can buy, with Labour that’s exactly what you’ll get. And we’ll devolve the power and money on adult skills budgets as well. Decisions that drive growth in communities should be made by people with skin in the game.

I profoundly believe that the people and businesses of Birmingham know what training the economy of Birmingham needs. And the same is true in Wolverhampton and Wrexham, Peterborough and Portsmouth.

The next Labour government will spread economic power to the grassroots. And our central industrial mission – clean power by 2030 – will help us do it. Climate change is the defining social challenge of our times – there’s no question about that. I’m sure it scores highly on the risk register of every company in this room.

But if you only take one thing from today, let it be this. I don’t see climate change as a risk, I see it as an opportunity. The biggest chance we’ve had in a generation to make our economy work for working people. That’s what our green prosperity plan is all about.

A plan to make Britain a green growth superpower – to invest in wind, solar, nuclear, hydrogen, green steel and carbon capture; new opportunities for plumbers, electricians, engineers, software designers, technicians, builders; insulation for 19 million homes; and Great British Energy – a new national champion that will take advantage of the opportunities in clean British power and turn them into good, secure, well-paid British jobs.

You can never say it enough – clean British power is cheaper than imported fossil fuels. Nine times cheaper. If we have more of it, businesses and working people get cheaper bills, the country enjoys independence from tyrants like Putin and we give every community a shot at the green jobs of the future.

Clean hydrogen in South Yorkshire, Merseyside, the East of England, offshore wind in Scotland, Teesside, East and North Yorkshire, solar power growing rural communities in the South East, South West and – yes – here in the Midlands. It won’t be easy – we know that. On planning, on Ofgem’s remit, on getting ahead of demand issues with the grid, we not only see the battles ahead. We’ll run towards them.

Because nothing reeks of decline more than the idea Britain no longer knows how to build things – I won’t accept that. And with real partnership, we’ll win.

The same is true on finance. Big ambitions require public investment, and we will provide it. But we know that the real game-changer is private investment. And that this is a perennial challenge for British productivity. That’s why we’ll also set up a national sovereign wealth fund and use it to manage risk on the critical investments we need to become a green growth superpower. But also to create spill-over opportunities for businesses and supply chains right across the country in manufacturing and services.

That is what industrial strategy and partnership must deliver – in a nutshell. A new way of managing our economy, a fresh start for Britain and it’s a divide with the government.

Last week, you saw the sum total of their offer on growth. Stagnation dressed up in the clothes of stability, decline paraded as tough decisions. ‘Tough decisions’ would be challenging their party on planning, on onshore wind, on industrial strategy, but they don’t have it in them. Don’t understand that to be a careful steward of the economy in a volatile world, you need to be proactive. Need to intervene to secure stability and growth.

I’ll put it simply: every business in this room has a strategy for growth – a nation needs one too. Because the headwinds we face – climate change, artificial intelligence, caring for an ageing society – mean that a hands-off approach just isn’t fit for purpose anymore.

And I’m not going to give up on growth that easily. I believe in our country, I believe in our businesses, and I believe in our people. Britain deserves better. A new partnership for prosperity. The path to a greener, fairer, more dynamic country. To higher wages, higher skills, higher productivity. To leading the world on the greatest challenge facing our planet. To giving working people a sense of hope, aspiration and possibility once again. Thank you.

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