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UK Labour Party could live to regret Starmer's cautious managerialism

London Letter: Lack of definition and drift from core principles flaw in Labour fabric

In a large, featureless room in a glass tower block in the City of London on Thursday morning Labour's shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds was introducing himself to UK Finance, the body that represents Britain's banking and financial services sector. He started with an apology.

“Labour’s good relationship with business was once known as ‘the prawn cocktail offensive’. Many of you have told me that in the last few years, you felt it was just plain ‘offensive’,” he said.

Reynolds took over the business brief from former Labour leader Ed Miliband last year in a front bench reshuffle that consolidated Keir Starmer's shift to the right. The MP for the Manchester constituency of Stalybridge and Hyde since 2010, Reynolds was among the MPs who questioned Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley about working conditions at the firm.

“I will never accept the exploitation or abuse of working people. But I know the vast majority of businesses don’t accept these things either. The overwhelming majority of successful businesses are successful because they care about their workforce, their customers, and the communities they are part of,” he said.

“So when I say that a future Labour government believes a strong relationship with business is essential, it’s not positioning, it’s not messaging, it’s not moving away from traditional Labour values of fairness and equality – it’s a recognition of what is really required to deliver those values in practice.”

He said he wanted the next Labour manifesto to be "packed with pledges on science, investment, rates reform, skills and infrastructure" but in the question-and-answer session afterwards, he denounced what he described as unrealistic promises in the party's 2019 manifesto. Reynolds's eagerness to distance himself from the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn is par for the course in Starmer's Labour Party but it is increasingly redundant.

Brexit challenges

Nobody who questioned Reynolds at the UK Finance event made any reference to Labour’s past or expressed doubts about the sincerity of his commitment to working with business. They wanted to know what a Labour government would do about the dwindling attractiveness of London’s stock exchange and the difficulties they face because of Brexit.

The unwelcome consequences for business of Britain's wafer-thin, poorly negotiated Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) with the European Union have become more apparent as the country has emerged from coronavirus. But Reynolds had little to offer, saying that Labour wanted to avoid an endless "constitutional conversation about different EU structures and customs unions and single markets" and would seek practical, trade solutions instead.

These include a sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) agreement which could help to reduce checks on animal products and ease friction over the Northern Ireland protocol but offers little practical help to banks trying to bring staff to London from the Continent. Labour’s timidity over Brexit is rooted in its determination to regain Red Wall seats that fell to the Conservatives in 2019 but it undermines the party’s credibility as the champion of business.

Starmer used a visit to Nato’s headquarters in Brussels to reinforce the message that Labour was no longer the party of Corbyn where foreign policy is concerned. But the truth is that the former leader never stamped his personal foreign policy views on his party.

Pro-Nato stance

In 2017 and again in 2019 Labour campaigned on a manifesto that would have kept Britain in Nato and retained Trident, its “independent” nuclear deterrent.

“The vast majority of Labour members support Nato, it’s part of our history, part of our values. It’s an alliance which is there to keep and preserve the peace and it’s done so for decades, so I think the portrayal of the vast majority of Labour members as not supporting Nato is wrong. They’re very pleased with our reassertion of our support of Nato and quite right too,” Starmer told the BBC.

Starmer has gone further than affirming Labour's commitment to Nato, offering his full support to Boris Johnson in his hardline stance on Ukraine. In an article in the Guardian, the Labour leader goes further still, suggesting that the Stop the War coalition – which opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq almost 20 years ago and has called for a diplomatic dialogue with Russia – is assisting authoritarian regimes.

“At best they are naive, at worst they actively give succour to authoritarian leaders who directly threaten democracies. There is nothing progressive in showing solidarity with the aggressor when our allies need our solidarity and – crucially – our practical assistance now more than ever,” he said.

As Johnson's leadership sinks further into chaos, Labour is enjoying a 10-point lead in the polls. But if the Conservatives replace Johnson with a younger, technocratic figure such as Rishi Sunak, Starmer's cautious managerialism risks looking like a pale imitation, lacking definition and unmoored from principle.