Starmer says it is his ‘mission’ to raise skills of young people

Addressing the CBI annual conference, the Labour leader offered a new ‘contract’ between his party and business.

Gavin Cordon
Monday 22 November 2021 15:44
Sir Keir Starmer speaking at the CBI annual conference in Birmingham (Jacob King/PA)
Sir Keir Starmer speaking at the CBI annual conference in Birmingham (Jacob King/PA)

Sir Keir Starmer has pledged to make it his “mission” to raise the level of skills of a generation of young people entering the workplace for the first time.

Addressing the CBI annual conference, the Labour leader said improving skills was the key to lifting economic performance as he offered a new “contract” between business and his party.

Speaking in Birmingham one of a number of venues where the conference is taking place, he said he wanted to work with business to “remake” Britain following Brexit and the pandemic.

He said he was appointing a new council of skills advisers – including former education secretary Lord Blunkett – to ensure young people were equipped with the skills they needed for the digital age.

“It has long been my view that we don’t value vocational and technical skills nearly enough,” he said.

“My council will ensure young people are literate in the technology of the day. That is why we would add digital skills to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

“Better skills are vital if we are to improve productivity and economic growth.

“This is why getting the next generation ready for work will be my mission as leader of the Labour Party. Skills policy is the first line in the first chapter of Labour’s plan for good business.”

Setting out his proposal for a new contract with business, Sir Keir said Labour wanted to create a “wave” of high-skilled jobs while looking to firms to invest in the long term while supporting their staff through fair pay and flexible working.

“I know we have bridges to build, and I want to start a dialogue with you here today,” he said.

“This is our side of the contract. To run a stable government and a tight ship, to equip the next generation for work, to invest in British business and to create a wave of high-skilled jobs.

“Of course, on your side of the contract, there are responsibilities too. To invest in the long term, to contribute as we strive towards net zero, to contribute to your local communities, to support your workforce with fair pay and flexible working.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer takes part in a question and answer session with CBI president Lord Bilimoria (Jacob King/PA)

Speaking later during a question and answer session, Sir Keir said Labour was now not only “pro-business” but saw business as “a force for good in itself”.

“Sometimes our party has come across as thinking that business is to be tolerated in some way but not to be celebrated as a good in itself. That mindset has changed under my leadership,” he said.

While Sir Keir acknowledged Labour opposed Brexit in the 2016 referendum, he said the party now had a duty to ensure the UK’s departure from the EU was a success.

He accused Boris Johnson of engaging in a series of “pantomime disputes” with Brussels which were “no good” for British business or the British public.

In contrast, he said a Labour government would negotiate a new veterinary agreement with the EU for trade in agri-products which would help resolve the “impasse” over the Northern Ireland Protocol while cutting red tape for exporters across the UK.

“Just to be clear, Labour is not planning a rematch. Brexit has happened and we are not going to rejoin. But it is obvious that a poorly thought through Brexit is holding Britain back,” he said.

CBI president Lord Bilimoria welcomed Sir Keir’s address, saying it was “hugely encouraging” to see the opposition leader take the initiative on skills and “the UK’s productivity puzzle”.

“To have a Labour leader standing on a CBI platform championing the role and success of business shows just how far the party has come,” he said.

“As Labour advances its new – more consultative – ‘contract with business’, the CBI will play its part.”

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