Safe space for business

Team Starmer is being supported financially by very high-net-worth individuals and big companies. Have no doubts we are on course for the most rightwing Labour government ever, writes Eddie Ford

By all measurements, momentum seems to be gathering behind Sir Keir Starmer - with a resounding general election victory increasingly likely. Labour has been consistently ahead in the opinion polls for some time now, often by 20 points or more, and some are indicating that the Tories face electoral wipeout on the scale of their 1997 defeat at the hands of Tony Blair - maybe even greater, though you have to be careful predicting the future with the first-past-the-post electoral system.

With every day that goes by, ‘respectable’ and ‘sensible’ opinion is lining up behind the Starmer team - seen as a welcome dose of sanity after the chaotic madness represented by David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Yes, Rishi Sunak lingers on like a zombie prime minister, but many Tories are unsure of who or what he is - what does he actually believe in? Everyone agrees that his attempts to present himself as the ‘change’ candidate, challenging the 30-years-old status quo, has been a risible and predictable failure - he is part of that very status quo! Meaning that Labour is more and more an attractive option for those who consider themselves mainstream or middle of the road.

Poll lead

The latest Opinium poll for The Observer at the weekend shows Labour is beating the Tories on most issues, including the economy, health, education, the environment, immigration and crime, and scoring even on ones it normally lags way behind on, including defence.1 Particularly encouraging for Labour strategists - wanting it to be seen as the party of ambition, success and the homeowning democracy - is the fact that Labour has a lead on housing and house prices, traditionally regarded as ‘Tory values’. When Opinium asked voters which party they thought would be best for “housing/house prices”, 34% went for a Labour government under Starmer, against just 16% who chose the Tories under Rishi Sunak. Almost alone, when it comes to “fighting terrorism”, the Tories are just one point ahead of Labour on 25%.

Therefore it is only to be expected that very high-net-worth individuals and big companies are deciding that Starmer’s Labour is the best bet, now that Corbynism has been well and truly vanquished. Jeremy Corbyn himself is, of course, banned from standing as a candidate for the party at the next election - a signal that the party is ‘open for business’ in every sense of the term!

The latest figure to come out for the Labour leader is the boss of the Iceland supermarket chain and former Conservative donor, Richard Walker - who quit the Tories last October after previously seeking to be a candidate.

After taking time to deliberate on the matter, Walker took to the pages of The Guardian to say he now believes that Labour and Starmer had a “credible programme” to improve the UK economy and people’s lives - the party having moved closer to the centre, while Rishi Sunak’s party has caused a “total collapse in public confidence” in the government (January 29). For Walker, Labour’s objectives were clear, while the Tories were engaged in infighting and an “apparently endless churn of prime ministers, chancellors and secretaries of state”. Having met Starmer and his inner circle, he thought that the Labour leader had demonstrated a “compassion and concern for the less fortunate”, as well as an understanding of the cost-of-living crisis that had hurt his Iceland customers so much.

Significantly, the supermarket boss was impressed by Starmer’s leadership qualities, saying he had “demonstrated this in the way in which he has transformed his own party by ruthlessly excising the Corbynite extremism that made Labour unelectable in 2019”. The party was now a safe space for business, Rachel Reeves being an impressive chancellor-in-waiting, who understood the critical importance of “wealth creation” - Walker was convinced that the party would remove barriers in the planning system, as well as “breathing new life into our wearied high streets”. Naturally, he did not agree with everything that Labour stood for and had no plans to become a party member - nor is he understood to be planning to donate to the party. However, Walker will support Labour at the next election and hoped that it would “deliver the majority they will need to begin delivering their recovery programme for the UK”.

Not that Labour particularly needs Walker’s money. As has been widely reported in the Weekly Worker and plenty of other sources, rich individuals and big business are now paying into Labour considerably more than the trade unions - the traditional financers of the party, of course. In September, the party boosted its election war chest with a record quarter for funding, receiving more than £10.4 million. This included £3 million from David Sainsbury, the supermarket baron - not to mention his daughter, Fran Perrin, a philanthropist who has given over £1 million to the party since Starmer became leader (apparently giving £20,000 to Wes Streeting personally). Then there is the £2.2 million from the South African-born Gary Lubner, who made hundreds of millions running the company behind Autoglass, who told the Financial Times that he had wanted to put the party in power for a “long time”. Nor should we forget Dale Vince, the founder of gas and electricity supplier Ecotricity, who has also bankrolled Just Stop Oil in recent years. He has given at least £1.4 million to Labour through his company since 2014, though contributions really ramped up in the Starmer era, with a £500,000 gift. Other business leaders are likely to follow Walker in switching allegiance to Labour, as the general election and the prospect of a Labour government gets nearer.

Donkey work

Whatever some on the left might have said, the Labour Party can function perfectly well without the dues being paid by activists or the left doing the donkey work of leafleting, knocking on doors, and so on. If you have money pouring in from the moneyed class and have media outlets like The Mirror and The Guardian, even The Sun, on board, that is more than enough to get the job done. And have no doubt that Starmer wants to get the job done, even if some argued not that long ago that he did not really want to win the election, as all he was concerned with nothing more than kicking out the Labour left.

In 1998, Peter Mandelson - Tony Blair’s right-hand man at the time - famously declared that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, just so long as they pay their taxes. Rachel Reeves’s recent trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, which by all accounts was a roaring success, was meant to show the same: Starmer’s Labour Party is extremely relaxed about wealth and hobnobbing with the super-wealthy. As some in the rightwing press have waspishly remarked, Labour wants the filthy rich’s money for themselves.

To this and other ends, Labour this week is holding a major business conference in central London, hosting leaders from companies including Google, Shell, AstraZeneca, Airbus, Siemens, British Chamber of Commerce, and Goldman Sachs.2 More than 600 executives, investors and bosses from the finance world are to flock to the event, indicating that they expect the party to form the next government - so time to work the room. The conference is three times the size of a similar business event Labour held last year, with each ticket costing nearly £1,000 and the whole event selling out in just four hours. At the meeting, the party will unveil its much-anticipated strategy for the City and detail how it plans to harness the strength of the UK’s £275 billion financial and professional services sector.

Ahead of the summit, Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow business secretary - who was in Davos with Reeves - pledged to make it an annual event and promised to end the “VIP lanes” for contracts that gave preference to bidders with links to government figures during the pandemic. “Labour is the party of business,” he declared - there will be “no back doors or special access for donors” under a Labour government, as “the public and honest businesses” have had enough of Tory “sleaze and scandal”. His party will bring integrity back to how the government and business works together to solve the big challenges in our country, said Reynolds, and this conference will demonstrate Labour’s “commitment to work hand in glove with the business community”. As part of this “commitment”, Reeves has said that Labour has no intention of reinstating the cap on bankers’ bonuses that was removed in 2022 by the then chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, as part of the now notorious ‘mini-budget’ under Liz Truss. The shadow chancellor, of course, wants to be the “champion of a thriving financial services industry”.

The huge effort that Labour has put into wooing business leaders appears to be paying off in spades - as evinced by a party-commissioned Opinium poll that took a sample of 500 business leaders.3 44% said they had backed the Tories in the 2019 election, compared to 27% who had supported Labour. However, when asked for their preferred outcome at the coming general election, the positions had reversed - with 49% preferring “a Labour government led by Keir Starmer”, compared to 34% who wanted “a Conservative government led by Rishi Sunak”. Of the 220 business leaders who had backed the Tories in 2019, a quarter (25%) said they now wanted a Labour victory. The survey also found that 69% agreed with the statement that the Tories had “lost the trust of the business community”, compared to 25% who disagreed.

Davos woman

Naturally, Reynolds was cock-a-hoop, saying the findings showed that “business has given up on the Conservative Party” and “lost faith in them”. He talked about a really unusual position”, where business leaders are looking for a change of government to get “greater stability”. Reynolds has also revealed that he and Reeves took the opportunity at Davos to ask international companies whether they would consider listing in the UK - ‘Please invest in a Labour Britain that is pro-business and pro-enterprise’.

In other words, while Labour remains a workers’ party because of its history, its name, its organisational links with the trade union movement and its electoral base, politically it has sold its soul to the bourgeoisie. The idea that what is needed is a Labour Party mark two, as pushed by the Socialist Party in England and Wales and other disorientated left groups, is merely to invite a comic repetition of the Labour Party mark one. No, we need something serious, something that can really challenge the rule of capital. That is the organisation of the working class into a mass Communist Party.

  1. theguardian.com/politics/2024/jan/27/voters-think-labour-would-be-better-than-conservatives-on-housing-and-house-prices.↩︎

  2. theguardian.com/politics/2024/jan/24/labour-to-unveil-plans-for-city-at-forthcoming-business-conference.↩︎

  3. telegraph.co.uk/politics/2024/01/27/business-support-shift-labour-keir-starmer-over-rish-sunak.↩︎