Jeremy Corbyn dismissed allegations that he is anti-business as “complete nonsense”, but said he would not apologise for planning the renationalisation of key sectors of the economy.
Speaking to the Confederation of British Industry conference in London, Mr Corbyn appealed to business leaders to work with Labour on an agenda they could gain a lot from.
But he was accused by the CBI chief, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, of sticking with “outdated ideologies” on nationalisation and staff ownership, which would frighten off investors and shut the door on partnerships with business.
The Labour leader gave no ground to business concerns about nationalisation or higher taxation of wealthy individuals and corporations in his address to an audience of leaders of industry.
Mr Corbyn insisted Labour plans to take broadband into the public sector were “sensible, affordable and doable” and said that the UK “can’t go on” with the current system of private provision of energy and rail.
And defending Labour plans to hike income tax for the richest 5 per cent, he said: “I think our economy needs that and it’s a necessary thing to do.”
“It’s sometimes claimed that I’m anti-business,” Mr Corbyn told his CBI audience. “That is complete nonsense. It’s not anti-business to be against poverty pay. It’s not anti-business to say the largest corporations should pay their taxes just as smaller companies do.
“It’s not anti-business to want prosperity in every part of our country and not only the City of London.”
He said: “Let’s be frank, Labour will ask those at the top to pay their fair share in tax. We will put an end to the tax tricks that allow the wealthiest individuals and the biggest corporations to avoid paying their way. And we will bring some key services into public ownership. I make no apology for that.
“It’s not an attack on the foundations of a modern economy; it’s the very opposite. It’s the norm in many European countries.”
Acknowledging that much of the business community is “cautious” about Labour’s plans, Mr Corbyn said: “Your businesses, your workers and your consumers have been failed by rip-off energy bills and poor rail and bus services. And I think many of you know that because you know things can’t go on as they are.”
Dame Carolyn responded: “It’s time to see Labour open the door to real and lasting partnership with business, not stick with outdated ideologies that would close it in their face.
“False instincts for mass nationalisations and forcing inclusive ownership schemes on to thriving businesses does little more than frighten off investors from backing the UK, with pensioners and savers having to foot the bill.
“A high-growth, fair mixed economy is within our grasp, but only if business is welcomed and supported as a provider of opportunity, not falsely portrayed as the root cause of inequality.”
The CBI director general welcomed Mr Corbyn’s offer to give companies greater freedom in the use of apprenticeship levy funds and step up vocational training, as the Labour leader confirmed plans for 320,000 new climate apprenticeships.
“The challenge is not what Labour want to achieve, it’s how,” she said. “Firms share many of the same ambitions, on skills, climate change, delivering high-paid jobs and making sure that the proceeds of growth are felt across the country – but those challenges need a joint response.”
But Mr Corbyn insisted that UK businesses “have so much to gain from a Labour government”, which would deliver “more investment than you ever dreamt of … the best educated workforce you’ve ever hoped for … the world-leading infrastructure, including full-fibre broadband you’ve long demanded”.
And he warned that Boris Johnson’s “sell-out” Brexit deal would extend uncertainty for businesses by setting the UK up for years of negotiation about trade relations with its largest market.
“Despite people’s differences, there are things we can all agree on,” said Mr Corbyn.
“None of us wants to live in a society where we have to step over rough sleepers on our way to work. None of us wants to live in a society where foodbank collection points are needed in every supermarket. None of us wants to live in a society where one in three children grows up in poverty.
“I just want to live in a decent society. And I know you do too. It doesn’t have to be an either/or choice because the opportunities created for businesses under a Labour government will be immense.
“No more good companies going to the wall because of a dearth of investment. No more towns and entire regions abandoned because government ministers are only concerned with the financial sector. No more talented workers feeling they’ve been thrown on the scrapheap with no opportunity to learn new skills.
“So, work with us to make that happen. Work with us to change the way the economy works so that it works for everyone and help save our children and grandchildren from climate breakdown.”
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