In a few weeks’ time, when the pundits come to review the most important political moments of the year, you wouldn’t bet on many choosing the Labour Business Conference. A day of mutual fawning between politicians and businesspeople is hardly gripping compared with the countless dramatic moments across the year or even the set piece events at annual party conference.
But for supporters of the Starmer project, the event is far from insignificant. It reflects the party’s rebrand from being inward looking and ideologically sceptical of business, towards a constructive and competent government in waiting. There was a simple clear message from the Labour MPs out in force, and clear from Rachel Reeves’ speech: we’re backing business.
Of course, Labour’s heavy-handed promotion of the Business Conference is entirely understandable, once you chew over the fact that the idea of Jeremy Corbyn hosting a conference in Canary Wharf would have been completely unthinkable. Even travelling through the business district would probably make the man nauseous, let alone a sponsorship from HSBC.
On policy, the conference did not tell us anymore than we already knew. A BBC interview with Reeves again highlighted the difficulty Labour has in dealing with industrial relations disputes without alienating their base or coming across as anti-business. There was also no further indication on how Labour would renegotiate trading relations with the EU. Instead, Reeves reiterated that Labour would abolish business rates, and outlined a few potential changes to pension regulation.
Call us cynical comms people, but that’s a job well done. Who would want a big controversial set piece announcement to derail the message that Labour is again a serious force? The Business Conference appears to have been a success; a sold out event, high profile attendees from the business world, and a rejuvenated Labour brand on full display.
Needless to say, at this stage it is very difficult to ascertain whether Labour would really be pro-business in the event of a General Election victory. Arguably there remains a zest for nationalisation that at the very least presents major challenges to many very large businesses. But style is often more important than substance, and as Starmer addressed executives in Canary Wharf in front of the Labour banner, his predecessor would probably have been photographed waving placards on the picket line.
And striking to the Field Team was just how busy the conference floor was. Barring the most implausible of turnarounds, Starmer will lead the party into the next election with a lead in the polls. Whether the c-suites are convinced by the substance of the policy or not, they clearly think Labour means business.