OPINION - Davos Man Starmer wants Labour to look like it means business

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer  (PA Wire)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (PA Wire)

Under pressure, politicians can give answers that reveal more than they think. In two quick-fire responses to Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel in their News Agents podcast, Sir Keir Starmer told a story about his leadership of the Labour Party. The two answers he gave were Piers Morgan and Davos, and they put a chasm between him and the Labour party he wants to leave behind.

Asked whether he would prefer to sit next to Morgan or Jeremy Corbyn at the Emirates Stadium to watch Arsenal, Starmer dismissed his predecessor as Labour leader without hesitation. The Starmer team still fear the sense that the Labour Party has not changed enough. The residual association with the Corbyn leadership, which lost the 2019 election so badly, is one they badly wish to throw off.

The second answer completes the point. Starmer was asked which location he preferred: Westminster or Davos? The standard response for the politician wanting to curry favour with the people would be to say neither and then lamely name their own constituency, although Holborn and St Pancras hardly says ‘horny-handed son of toil’ either. But Starmer did not dissimulate. He said he preferred Davos. Westminster, he said, was a talking shop, a place of conflict where nothing got done. Davos — which is really like a global party conference — he considered to be less a waste of time, a place in which the talk is at least pointed towards some kind of action.

There are two important messages in this answer. The first is that Starmer very consciously describes himself as a man who wants to get things done. He often says he is in politics to fix things. That sounds like a banal formulation but you have to read the political code because it isn’t really banal at all. It means he will not be bound by fixed ideology. It means he intends to be pragmatic. It means he will abandon previous pledges— tuition fees is likely to be the next — if they turn out to make no sense.

He ran for leader as a candidate of the Labour Party soft Left but he is smart enough to learn that the positions he struck in his leadership campaign will explode when they collide with reality. His critics call this duplicity. We might instead call it politics.

The second point to the answer is echoed in all the many circulating pictures of Starmer and his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves in the snow of Davos. The Starmer team have been making a huge effort to win trust with British business. The Labour leader has located the point where his politics meet the demands of business — skills and innovation, especially in the green industries — while in all the private meetings Reeves sounds admirably reluctant to let anyone spend any money.

And though they don’t really want to discuss it in public, the Labour Party also promises a less toxic relationship with the European Union.

There is no doubt that Labour is open to business and that Starmer’s welcoming attitude is a leading indicator of how serious he is about winning the election. And good intentions towards business might indeed suffice to win office because the Tories are in a terrible state. The latest modelling suggests the Conservative Party could be wiped out if a general election took place now.

It is true that governing parties tend to recover a little as an election looms. Perhaps the economic news will turn in time. Perhaps the residual fear of Labour profligacy with the public finances will cost a few votes. Yet, as he watched his beloved Arsenal beat Manchester United at the Emirates yesterday, he finds his team five points clear at the top of the Premier League and his party more than 20 points clear in most of the polls. It’s theirs to lose, as they say in the game.

However, a good conversation with business will not be enough once Labour takes office. In its economic policy making, as elsewhere, Labour is working against the clock. Beyond the easy-to-say desire for a more productive economy and some commitment to investment in green technologies, it’s not yet clear what a Labour government would do. Business leaders come to their conversations with the Labour Party wondering what will happen next. But the Labour Party wonders the same. It is a relationship that is pleasant but shallow and time is running out in which it can deepen. This side of the election, perhaps that does not matter. On the other side, it really will.