Keir Starmer's conference keynote met with industry approval but questions remain around substance

Wed 11 Oct 2023
Posted by: Danielle Keen
Trade News

Industry workers in the background of meeting

Keir Starmer’s Labour Party Conference speech yesterday (10 October) has been welcomed by industry figures, despite questions remaining about the finer details of his plans.

International trade didn’t feature heavily in the speech, with the Labour leader instead focusing on setting out a domestic agenda designed to combat the cost-of-living crisis, housing shortage and NHS backlog.

Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT) UK public affairs lead, Grace Thompson, says the speech was an opportunity to highlight the “message that he and the Shadow Cabinet have been championing, both at the Labour Party Conference this year and throughout his time as leader of the opposition: this is a changed party and one which takes business seriously”.

Regionalisation

Thompson notes the political direction of greater regionalisation policy in Starmer’s appeals to the business community, as he listed the potential of a host of regions “from Derbyshire to Staffordshire” with a pledge to grow “‘every corner of the country’”.

The move was in contrast in light of Sunak’s main keynote announcement last week: cutting HS2’s Manchester leg, which elicited criticism from regional mayors.

Starmer also omitted a commitment to the HS2 project, echoing Sunak’s plans to spend funds allocated to the project on alternative transport upgrades.

The emphasis on regions filtered through to his energy policy, with announcements for a Great British Energy company based in Scotland.

Energy

Other positive reactions to the energy plans came from the unions. Noting the echoes of US president Joe Biden’s green energy policy, the union Prospect, which represents over 150,000 professionals across energy, defence and technology, welcomed Starmer’s “Energy Independence Act”, which would underpin plans for the publicly-owned energy company.

Mike Clancy, Prospect's general secretary, said the leader of the opposition “was right to recognise the huge potential that exists to deliver good jobs and growth from clean power”.

“Labour is recognising what is happening in the US to create clean energy jobs, with government working closely with unions and industry. We stand ready to work with them to implement similar policies in the UK.”

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham gave a cautious welcome, saying that: “As always, the devil will be in the detail.”

‘Get Britain building again’

Starmer’s pledge to build 1.5 million new homes and “the next generation of Labour towns” has caused the greatest media stir, termed “the biggest single pledge” of the keynote by ITV’s Robert Peston.

Martin McTague, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said:

“This overarching theme of this Labour conference has been build, build, build and that resonated well in Keir Starmer’s speech.”

National Housing Federation chief executive, Kate Henderson, also welcomed the plans, especially the use of low-quality green belt land, which Starmer called “grey belt”, as sites for development. Speaking to Social Housing, she said:

“Given the chronic shortage of homes we have in England it makes sense to use some of this land to deliver the homes we sorely need, while protecting the parts of the green belt that are more valuable to our environment.”

The timeframe for the building project – five years – attracted raised eyebrows from political opponents, with many crunching numbers and questioning how feasible the 1.5 million goal is.

Political criticism

Starmer faced criticism from both sides of the political divide, questioning whether the substance of the policies put forward.

Grassroots movement Momentum, which originated from Labour’s left wing, released an official statement in response to the keynote, claiming the party had failed to commit to nationalising energy and not offering a more progressive tax stance and was perpetrating the “the very sticking plaster politics it rightly derides”.

Similar criticism was levied from the other end of the political spectrum, with Conservative Party chair, Greg Hands, accusing the Labour leader of “offer[ing] more of the same short-term political decision-making of the last 30 years that has failed Britain”.