Keir Starmer courts business in effort to reclaim centre ground

UK political party conferences updates

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has eschewed references to “socialism” and promised to support business and maintain fiscal discipline in a 35-page essay setting out his political ethos.

In a 12,000-word document published on Thursday, Britain’s leader of the opposition, emphasised the values of hard work, partnership between the state and the private sector and a new theme dubbed “the contribution society”.

“Business is a force for good in society, providing jobs, prosperity and wealth,” he wrote.

The document mentioned “business” 29 times but did not mention the words “socialism”, “socialist”, “nationalise” and “public ownership”.

“Why when government departments are funded by taxpayer money are we so lax about ensuring that money is spent appropriately?” he wrote. “The government should treat taxpayer money as if it were its own”

Starmer intends to return Labour to the political centre ground from which former prime minister Tony Blair won three general elections. After the party’s defeat in 2019, its biggest in 80 years, the leader’s team hopes his message will resonate with Middle England voters.

Labour has narrowed a 10-point gap with the ruling Conservative party during the summer, but remains about 5 points behind in the opinion polls.

Next week, Starmer hopes to demonstrate his reforming credentials by shaking up Labour’s rule book at the party’s annual conference, a plan which has enraged the leftwing of the party.

Starmer won the party leadership in April 2020 by promising to unite battling left and rightwing elements after years of infighting.

Once in the role he moved swiftly to remove “hard left” politicians from positions of power in the shadow cabinet and from head office. He has also taken a zero tolerance stance to accusations of anti-Semitism among some members.

Central to his plan is to listen less to the radical views of the party’s 500,000-strong membership and more to the concerns of “floating” voters.

The leader described Labour in his pamphlet as a “party squabbling over its own past, rather than one focused on the future of the country”.

Many of the senior figures Starmer has hired for his team are “Blairites”, some of whom previously worked for Blair, the only Labour leader to have won a general election in the past 45 years.

Former Blair staffers include Matthew Doyle, his spokesman, and Philip Collins, who helped Starmer write his speech to be delivered at the conference next week. Morgan McSweeney, strategic adviser, is close to Peter Mandelson, co-founder of Blair’s “New Labour” project.

Starmer’s plan to change the rules governing Labour leadership elections, giving MPs more sway and members less, echoed the way Blair stripped away “Clause IV”, which committed Labour to the “common ownership of industry”, in the mid-1990s.

The former prime minister remains unpopular with leftwing MPs and grassroots members partly because of his pro-business approach and decision to enter the Iraq war.

Starmer has proposed an end to “one member one vote” for future leadership battles in favour of the old “electoral college” made up of union members, MPs and party members. At the same time he wants to make it harder for members to kick out MPs through “trigger ballots”.

The plan will be debated at a meeting of the national executive committee on Friday.

Liam Byrne, who stood unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for West Midlands mayor this summer, said Starmer was right to hold back on launching much new policy at this stage.

“I love policy . . . but what Labour lacks today is a strategic narrative: the morality tale of where you’ve come from, where you are and where you are going.”

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