Home Estate Planning Starmer’s prawn cocktail offensive is just that: palatable but lacking substance

Starmer’s prawn cocktail offensive is just that: palatable but lacking substance

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Labour’s business plan is hard to oppose, but only because it has nothing to say, writes Eliot Wilson

The way we talk about Labour and business has a whiff of anachronism about it. Notwithstanding Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the party long ago shed its hardcore eat-the-rich credentials, and it is more than 30 years since Michael Heseltine mocked then-shadow chancellor John Smith for his “prawn cocktail offensive” to woo the City. Nevertheless, Sir Keir Starmer and shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds recently commissioned public affairs trouper Iain Anderson to consider business relations for an incoming Labour government.

Anderson was an unusual choice. The founder of financial PR shop Cicero, he was a loyal and high-profile Conservative supporter for nearly 40 years, a rare Scot who spoke mistily-eyed of “Maggie” Thatcher. Those with longer memories will recall his support for runway expansion at Heathrow and his warm words for rising stars Kemi Badenoch, Ben Bradley and Bim Afolami.

In 2022 he left the Conservatives, ostensibly in protest at the government’s embrace of “culture wars”, and then joined Labour, by that stage regularly 15 to 20 points ahead in the polls. At the same time he became chair of Stonewall, announcing that his priority was “fighting for trans people and securing a trans equality strategy”.

Anderson’s business relations review for the Labour party is a modest document in size, and fiercely inclusive in its sources: Anderson thanks, among others, former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell, Cameron-era investment minister and ex-chairman of Barclays Lord Grimstone of Boscobel, onetime adviser to Dominic Raab Fabian Chessell and Irishman Paul Dreschler, long-time chairman and CEO of construction firm Wates Group.

In tone, it is strikingly retrospective. Seeking to portray the current government as an aberration from more agreeable norms, it recalls a time when “businesses were able to engage with ministers in a constructive and in-depth way” and stresses the need for a “return to good governance”. It seeks a coming-together not just of government and the private sector but “wider economic and social partners – the trade unions and academia”.

Anderson bases his review on six (alliterative) principles: clarity, consistency, courtesy, collaboration, capability and confidence. These are sufficiently generic that any party would sign up to them (though it is not clear how “confidence in the government’s strategy and its ability to deliver it” will show itself). The overriding message is that there should be more dialogue and coordination within government and beyond, which is usually welcome; but it is often political theorists and those outside Whitehall who overestimate the transformative power of talking to each other.

One recommendation is a single focal point for business engagement. It is hard to see where this could be except within Downing Street, which entails a greater concentration of economic policy at the centre of Whitehall than departments might initially welcome. For them to “work together and be properly joined up when it comes to business engagement” will require very skilfully managed relations to and from the centre without diluting executive power.

The review argues that small and medium enterprises have been neglected, as has engagement with the private sector across the UK rather than just in London and the South East. Again, the prescription is for government to be more joined-up. Alongside this, Anderson advocates leaving ministers and officials in post for longer and fostering “business skills”.

One specific problem the review identifies is the UK’s poor record of inward investment. The solutions are familiar: clarity, co-operation and long-term planning. Anderson praises the recent series of Global Investment Summits and suggests holding an annual event linked to the Labour Party’s five missions “to supercharge investment into each of these macro policy objectives”.

Labour grandee Roy Jenkins once said that a statement was only interesting if a sane man could say the opposite. By that measure, Anderson’s review is the epitome of tedium. In general terms, no-one would advocate less coordination, less dialogue or more separation between policy areas. It is a benign document but larded with generalities. If Sir Keir Starmer hopes to revolutionise the British economy without major public investment, this gentle exhortation to “just do better, lads” will not tip the balance.

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