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Business & Economy

Interview: New goals

With its North East heartland ransacked by headline Conservative offensives during a meek General Election capitulation, Labour has spent the last five years not just remedying battle wounds but finding a cure for its very existence. Its recovery has been slow but, the party’s leader Sir Keir Starmer tells Steven Hugill, it is now suitably rehabilitated to administer a fresh dose of national political change.

As an Arsenal Football Club devotee, Sir Keir Starmer knows all about the value of a strong red wall.

From George Graham’s defensive pragmatism to Arsene Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ and Mikel Arteta’s present reboot, when the club founded by munitions workers succeeds, it does so with a heavily armoured backline.

And it’s a fact not lost on the Labour leader.

Torn asunder at the last General Election, its once impregnable North East barricade wrecked by historic Tory advances, Sir Keir has spent the last five years with metaphorical trowel in hand, rebuilding Labour’s scarlet shield brick by brick.

But it’s been far from an easy task.

Graham, Wenger and Arteta, for all they had tough assignments in reviving a team in decline, at least had a club in the top division.

When he stepped into a dugout vacated by Jeremy Corbyn, though, the Arsenal season ticket holder was met with an outfit carrying all the qualities of a Sunday morning Dog and Duck XI.

And for a good while, the party’s performances remained more Hackney Marshes than House of Commons.

Politics, though, just like football, is a dramatically fluctuating landscape.

And on a Parliamentary pitch where Conservative ministers continue to net appalling own goals while VAR-style inquiries further weaken public sentiment, Labour finds itself ready to challenge for honours again.

“We have turned Labour around; we have changed the party and have a positive offer to put to the country,” Sir Keir tells North East Times Magazine.

That proposition, he says, is spearheaded by a blueprint that will hand “Britain its future back” through a decade of national renewal as the country’s “party for business”.

Launched as the trumpeters were clearing their throats to herald the King’s Speech, it leads with a pledge to “get the North East building again”, by creating “roads, warehouses, grid connections and laboratories quicker and cheaper”.

It also promises to introduce a fresh industrial strategy – complete with new national wealth fund – and transform vocational learning with technical excellence colleges that will “end the years of missing skills”.

But Sir Keir says it will go yet further, telling North East Times Magazine the party will commit to measures focused on catalysing regional transport improvements, such as the mothballed County-Durham-to-Gateshead Leamside Line rail link, which was slated for revival in the Government’s recent £36 billion Network North programme, only to be scratched hours later.

He says: “We have a well thought through plan, which will be felt in the living standards, jobs and skills we need for the North East.

“It will also help fix infrastructure and transport, which isn’t working as well as it should be.

“The Leamside Line, for example, is a sign of complete chaos, where the Government’s right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.

“The Prime Minister tried to pull a fast one, and everyone in the North East called him out – and rightfully so.”

In a nod to the devolution plans laid down by the present Conservative regime, Sir Keir says Labour, should it be victorious at the next election, would empower local leaders to fashion such change.

“The proper way to do things is to sit down with the mayors and talk through plans,” says Sir Keir, whose party has chosen Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuinness as its candidate for May’s North East Mayoral Combined Authority election, which promises the victor significant skills, transport and housing cash.

He adds: “And they must be workable plans; this cannot be done from Whitehall, it has to be done from the North East.

“Decisions about the North East are best made by people with skin in the game, by those that know the workforce, the skills, the drive and the partners for a project far better than I do.

“My job, and that of the wider party, is to create the conditions for that to happen.”

One of those conditions, says Sir Keir, is skills development.

According to Labour forecasts, £120 billion of economic output could be lost by 2030 if an existing fracture between education provision and business needs is allowed to deteriorate into a full-on break.

Against such a stark backdrop, Sir Keir says the party’s plans for new technical excellence colleges – which he says could specialise in areas such as construction, clean energy and health and social care – would deliver “a new direction for skills.

He says: “A future must be trained, as well as built.

“Our technical excellence colleges would have a stronger link to local economies, form connections to local skills improvement plans and have universities and businesses around the table.”

Additionally, he says Labour gaining the keys to Downing Street would open the door for watershed recalibration of a flagship national training machine.

Pledging to reform the Apprenticeship Levy, whose limitations around training methods and course durations have long frustrated employers, he says: “Businesses should have more say over how they invest in their workforce.

“At the moment, the Apprenticeship Levy isn’t flexible enough.

“We would transform it into a new growth and skills levy, which would give companies more power over the training their money could buy,” adds Sir Keir, who spoke to North East Chamber of Commerce members at a Wynyard Hall event, and staff at Sunderland beverage maker Clearly Drinks, during a whistle-stop regional tour late last year.

The revision would be joined by a 20 per cent VAT hit on private schools, which would, says the Labour leader, fund the addition of 6500 teachers to comprehensive classrooms nationwide, putting new spring in the strides of state establishments presently “limping along”.

He says: “Early years attainment is just as good in the North East – if not better – as the rest of the country.

“But then there is a drop off.

“Something is going on that has nothing to do with children and more to do with the provision they are getting.

“We don’t have enough maths or physics teachers, for example, and we have to fix that.

“Too many young people are leaving education without basic skills – maths, digital, communication and teamwork – which every business needs.

“We would deliver higher standards, with every child taught by expert teachers across a broader curriculum, to make sure they are ready for work and ready for life.”

He adds: “But there isn’t a magic money tree, and ending the tax breaks on private schools would help us deliver opportunities for all, skills for business and growth for the nation.

“And this isn’t intended to punish parents sending children to public school; I want a system where, whether you go to private or state school, you are getting the same opportunities and qualities.”

Similarly catalysing, says Sir Keir, would be Labour’s introduction of a “modern industrial strategy”.

This, he says, would include a national wealthfund capable of reigniting investor interest by marrying necessary infrastructure spending with longer term planning to grow “Britain from the grassroots”.

He says: “We need a new business model.

“I talk to no end of investors, who say they don’t want to invest in the UK right now because it is too short-term and doesn’t have the stability they need.

“We would provide that stability, working hand-in-glove with the private sector and investing in the potential of regions like the North East.

“In a world where challenges like climate change, artificial intelligence and scientific advances like gene editing are constantly overturning the economic applecart, you need a Government that offers the hand of partnership.

“Our wealth fund would work with business to invest in the crucial infrastructure the North East needs, like the gigafactories to protect electric battery manufacturing in Sunderland; the hydrogen and carbon capture technology that will provide an industrial future for Teesside; and ports’ abilities to handle larger parts, to enable the east coast to lead the world in offshore wind.”

And with such longevity would come an end to the senior minister merry-go-round and associated “sticking plaster politics” Sir Keir says have infected UK growth over recent years.

He says: “We’ve had three Prime Ministers in three years, and had four Chancellors.

“Every time we knock on the door of a department, there is a different person sitting behind the desk, which is so bad for our country.

“Yes, it is a five-year term, but some things are going to take longer than that to fix – if we try to make a quick fix, we won’t get where we need to be.”

He adds: “Too many people walk around a problem in politics without fixing it.

“But I’m a person who wants to fix things.”



Photography: Christopher Owens