Enter Keir Starmer, who appears more than happy to fill the widening gap Johnson is creating between himself and the business community. While the Tories work to define themselves as the new “party of the NHS”, Starmer sees an opening on their old turf, and is not hesitating to make a bid for Labour to become the “party of business”.
He’s got some credibility, too. Labour’s former shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds was very vocal in her opposition to the March Budget’s corporate tax hike, arguing that the midst of a global pandemic was not the time to announce bigger financial burdens on business. Labour has also been critical of the national insurance rise.
The Opposition admits it would also raise more funds to support the NHS and social care, but says a jobs tax in all but name is not how they would go about doing so. And Labour is also the party that has put business rates reform at the heart of its agenda – the Conservatives, meanwhile, have pushed off reform until 2023.
That said, Labour’s response to Tory business policy is still fairly lacklustre and should not, in normal circumstances, earn anyone the coveted “party of business” title. But with Johnson all but tuning out of business concerns (describing the mass shortages of labour and supply chain issues at the Tory Party conference last month as an ideal recipe for higher wages), Starmer doesn’t need to do much to attract their attention.
As yesterday’s conference showed, simply showing up with a level head can now go a long way to securing business support. Speaking to the CBI, Starmer didn’t make waves, attempt many jokes or cause controversy: he appeared serious, when he declared that “Labour is back in business”, as if he understood that for plenty of businesses the past year and half was operating on the brink of closure.
The bar for him is perhaps much lower than if he were following a Blair-type leader, or even energy-price-cap fanatic Ed Miliband.
His simple rejection of Corbyn’s mass-nationalisation plans, with a few positive words about the merit of business, puts him in the good books, without having to make much in the way of meaningful pledges.
His best-crafted slogan so far, “make Brexit work”, will have also appealed to plenty of wistful Remainers in the audience, but in a way that accepts, rather than disputes, the settled status of the UK’s exit from the EU.
Jeremy Corbyn never hesitated to voice his disdain for the profit motive, shareholders and the market-based system that makes our world go round. For this, Labour’s relationship with business suffered, and is far from fully healed.
But Johnson’s aloof attitude towards companies’ pandemic plight and hard slog back to pre-pandemic operations is enabling Starmer to make inroads fast, despite the crux of his sell at the CBI yesterday being more “industrial strategy”: better understood as further government interference in the market.
It’s a sad state of affairs when Starmer’s vision for the private sector is the one that gets applauded. But the absence of Conservative pro-growth policies has meant that the competition comes down to platitudes and appearance, rather than policy or action. And comparing the performances of Johnson and Starmer, there was no contest: the Labour leader won comfortably.