IOE&IT public affairs adviser Grace Thompson shares her thoughts after attending a recent business conference from the Labour Party.
Reaching my table at Labour’s business day last Thursday (8 December), I was relieved to see that a plate of pastries and muffins accompanied the rather frothy coffee on the tables. It was looking to be a jam-packed day of speeches and discussions, so sustenance was going to be essential.
On entering the party’s main business conference, I had been handed a shiny report entitled: “Start-up, scale up: making Britain the best place to start and grow a business”.
With a foreword by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves noting that “we are at a post-Brexit crossroads”, the paper went on to make a variety of recommendations on making Britain the best place to start and grow a business.
The suggestions included utilising British universities’ research capabilities to drive growth, creating a Procurement Council of Experts to review barriers in public sector procurement and reforms to the business tax code.
Although the business leaders in attendance were intrigued to listen to the potential future chancellor, Sir Keir Starmer’s speech was naturally the main event of the day.
Speaking determinedly, he said: “I am here to say that Labour is ready to partner with you because we’re not just a pro-business party, we are a party proud to be pro-business.”
It was obvious that “back in business” was the party’s catchphrase for the day, with some very marked distancing from the previous Labour era.
In an interview session after Starmer’s speech, I was able to ask a question from the floor on how Labour planned to link their planned industrial strategy with the need for an export-led recovery.
Starmer on exports
The Labour leader responded positively, touching on several examples of exporters he had visited around the country – including one in Dundee – before highlighting the importance of trade agreements in delivering regional economic growth.
With former leader of the Labour party, Ed Miliband, on my table for the lunchtime session, I was interested to observe how deep he was diving with each stakeholder to discover the baseline problems faced by industry and what they believed the solutions were.
In a later session specifically on trade policy, the Institute of Export & International Trade’s director general Marco Forgione asked the panel – which included the shadow secretaries of state for international trade and levelling-up – about how to get more businesses to trade internationally, how to support trade skills and how to increase inward investment.
Forgione hammered home the importance of supporting more businesses to trade, saying that businesses which trade internationally are more efficient, profitable and sustainable.
The skills gap reared its head throughout the day, just as it has at almost every single conference and external meeting I have attended this year.
Most striking to me was a statistic cited by Verity Davidge, director of policy at manufacturing trade body Make UK, who noted that there were 95,000 live vacancies in the manufacturing sector. She attributed this to the skills gap.
The event was somewhat thin on detail – for example, we are still no clearer on what the reformed business rates system will look like – but this was clearly a day about messaging.
The biggest takeaway for me was that Labour says it will be listening to businesses not just as a PR exercise ahead of the election, but throughout its term in office.
It is also clear that regionalisation will steer its manifesto, seeking to ensure that economic growth is spread throughout the country.
The implications of a Labour government for businesses involved in exporting are unknown, but the model Labour has laid out so far implies that a greater spotlight will be shone on the need for trade deals to benefit businesses on a region-by-region basis.
You can also expect to be hearing more about ‘green export hubs’ and sustainable energy from Labour in the run-up to the election as they seek to advertise their vision for a ‘fairer, greener future’.