Labour Winter Business Conference 2024, like last year’s British Labour Party conference, represented a further tightening of the ties between big business and the Labour leadership.
Sponsored by HSBC and Bloomberg, £1,000 per head tickets sold out in a matter of hours last October. Around 400 corporate business executives from companies like AstraZeneca, Barclays, HSBC, Goldman Sachs, Google, and Shell attended to hear Labour’s plan for economic growth.
Labour’s Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves set the tone in the morning when she announced that Labour in power would cap corporation tax at 25% for the duration of the next government. This was after commenting that Britain currently has the lowest rate of corporation tax in the G7. When Thatcher came to power in 1979 it was 52% and she never got it lower than 34%. Reeves even implied it could be cut further ‘should our competitiveness come under threat’ – read, ‘if the capitalist class wants us to’.
The conference came and went with more rumoured policy shifts demonstrating Labour will defend the interests of British capitalism, including the axeing of the proposal to scrap the House of Lords within Labour’s first Parliament. When a Labour government under Kier Stamer comes under pressure from workers’ struggle, the House of Lords offers a line of defence of the interests of British capitalism. The Lords have the formal power to block measures that a mass workers’ movement could force on an unstable Starmer government. Labour has also retreated from its pledge of £28 billion green investment.
Starmer demonstrated his ambition to set the British economy on track to achieve the highest sustained economic growth in the G7, by creating an environment of economic certainty and stability for big business – a ‘safe space’ to invest their wealth into. “Time and again, you tell me it’s the chopping and changing, the sticking-plaster politics, the growing concern that our government will rip up its international commitments, that’s holding back investment in our country.”
No doubt big business would like such an environment. And no doubt Keir Starmer and the rest of the Labour leadership are keen to give it to them. Just days before the business conference, Iceland boss and former Tory donor Richard Walker announced that he was backing Labour. He also predicted others will follow in his wake, including “plenty of businessmen and women who are sick to death of the lack of stability, the chaos, and the unedifying infighting” within the crumbling Tory government.
Starmer and Reeves’ robotic mantra of ‘fiscal responsibility’ will sound a welcome change for the capitalist class from the economic uncertainty which has reigned in Britain since Liz Truss’ mini-budget in Autumn 2022. Nonetheless, economic and political stability will be the last thing they find under the next Starmer-led government.
Capitalism is an inherently blind, chaotic and unplanned system, driven by maximising the profits of a tiny handful at the top of society. The low-growth, stagnant and crisis-prone British economy which Starmer is set to inherit, with the highest debt-to-GDP ratio since 1961 and against the backdrop of a brewing world economic crisis, will mean more instability and more brutal attacks on the lives and futures of working-class and young people.
Citing the need to “get underneath the bonnet and fix an unprecedented stagnation in British productivity”, Starmer did make reference to cutting NHS waiting lists, reforming skills training, building 1.5 million homes and scrapping zero-hour contracts as part of a strategy to boost the confidence of big business to invest in Britain.
The question is who – or more specifically which class – in society does Starmer and the Labour leadership take their marching orders from?
Keir Starmer answered that question himself during his speech at the Oval. And which class will pay the price – the working class.
“We haven’t just opened our doors, we’ve taken decisions together as equal partners in the venture of national renewal. Your fingerprints – on every one of our five missions.” It was an echo of what he told 200 business leaders at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool that “if we do come into government, you will be coming into government with us.” Labour is just as committed to protecting the interests of the rich and powerful as the other capitalist parties are.
Confirmation of this was the inclusion in Starmer’s speech of step five of Labour’s plan for growth, “in some ways the most important step of all, the foundation it all rests upon – [the] commitment to always put economic stability first. We cannot and we will not allow public spending needs – however important – to threaten the stability of our finances.”
An editorial in the capitalist mouthpiece the Financial Times reflected some remaining concerns about what Labour in power will mean for the rich and powerful. “Reducing insecurity and curbing zero-hour contracts are hard to argue with. Yet granting basic individual employment rights from day one will limit employers’ flexibility. After a surge in industrial action in the past year, many bosses will also baulk at a repeal of key Conservative trade union legislation, making it easier to go on strike.”
The capitalist class, rightfully very worried, is not surprisingly trying to exert its pressure again on the Labour leadership to drop one of their last remaining commitments to workers. Entire sections of the working class in 2023 felt the power of their collective strength, taking on big business and the Tory government to win pay rises the establishment, in all its guises – from the government to the media – said were impossible to achieve. As a result, a whole new generation of young workers have joined the ranks of the trade union movement, many becoming workplace reps and activists. All of that experience and confidence to fight back will be carried over to a Starmer-led government.
The task of the workers’ movement is now to prepare to turn the fears of big business into a reality. With an incoming Starmer-led government in hock to the capitalist class, we have to exert pressure the other way. That means industrially, by campaigning in our trade unions for an independent and militant strategy to repel any attacks from a Starmer-led government.
But without a political arm, working-class and young people will be stuck at just fighting the capitalist bosses and their politicians rather than challenging for power themselves. Our class desperately needs its own mass party, in which the workers’ and trade union movement can actively participate, deciding policy and programme. The kind of reception that Starmer’s Labour Party today offers to big business and its networks and organisations!
Starmer in his speech spoke of a decade of national renewal; “decade – because, frankly, that’s how long it may take.” If that’s really the best that capitalism has to offer us, then it needs to go. Another decade would put us a quarter of a century clear of the 2007-08 financial crisis. In reality, on the basis of capitalism, there is no prospect of sustained healthy growth in the British economy no matter how long we wait!
And in a decade millions of working-class and young people will have suffered financial hardship, our right to a secure and happy future slipping away, in an increasingly unstable and war-torn world, all while the rich continue to get richer in Britain and globally. The ‘renewal’ Starmer talks about is similar to the ‘recovery’ at the end of the rainbow Cameron and Osbourne lied about when they took their axe to public services and wages – a recovery for the super-rich, and pain for the rest of us.
That’s why the Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales) campaigns for a new mass workers’ party, armed with a socialist programme to break with the capitalist system and build a democratically planned economy. We fight to take the levers of economic power out of the hands of the capitalist class by taking the major corporations, banks, and monopolies which dominate the economy into democratic public ownership. That would lay the basis for the socialist transformation of society here in Britain and internationally. Join us to fight to build the working-class organisations we need to achieve that transformation.