Jonathan addressing the 2023 SCDI Forum
Jonathan addressing the 2023 SCDI Forum

Thank you for that kind introduction and the chance to address you today. Sarah when we met in Westminster a few months ago you described this as ‘Scotland’s Davos’. As I’m not much of a skier – this is more my kind of place.

In all seriousness I gather this meeting has not been addressed by a Labour politician in some time. But I know that your engagement with Scottish Labour colleagues has been ongoing, and under Anas’s leadership supported by my colleague Daniel Johnson who is here today I know how seriously Scottish Labour values its engagement with business leaders.

And I am incredibly grateful to you Sarah and your whole team for the advice you have given my team and the opportunity to address you today. It’s a real pleasure to be a part of this event hosted by an organisation with such a rich history. But you aren’t resting on the success of the past – you are thinking and acting on what’s next. And that is where I think we are aligned.

Labour is firmly focused on Scotland’s future. Today I want to outline Labour’s vision for Scotland’s economy and businesses. And how I feel that prospectus can meet the challenges we face across the UK delivering the economic security that has been sorely lacking over the last decade.

I’m here today because I want to be the UK’s next Business Secretary. But in doing so, I want to state unequivocally, that I understand the approach we take in Scotland will differ to the rest of the UK. Not just because some of the key policy levers required to run the industrial strategy we’re proposing are the responsibility of the Scottish Government, and we will always respect that. But also because Labour understands that to apply one approach to the diverse regions and nations of the UK isn’t always right.

Keir’s mission, to achieve the highest sustained growth in the G7, will not be achieved by opportunity and wealth being hoarded in the south east of England. I believe every part of the UK must feel the benefits of a vibrant economy, good jobs, bustling high streets, better public services. It isn’t about growing the economy in London for the Westminster government of the day to decide who gets what. It’s a fundamentally different economy that works for the benefit of everyone.

Under Labour the Scottish economy was growing. And under the next Labour government, Labour is determined the benefits of Scottish businesses growing and investing will be felt here in Scotland. I passionately believe my Scottish colleagues are the best to decide what happens here. But I don’t want you to think for a second the wider Labour Party doesn’t care about, or get Scotland. Because Scotland means a great deal to Labour, and to me.

I’m very proud to live and represent Tameside, in Greater Manchester, but I also grew up in Sunderland, just 130 miles from here. What I do believe is that Sunderland, and Manchester, are both places that in many ways have more in common with parts of Scotland, than they do some other parts of England. And growing up in the North East in the 1980s, I always looked to Scotland as a place of prosperity.

But I also always saw Scotland as place that combined prosperity with a commitment to fairness and civic responsibility. I still do. And I also know Scotland is more than just one place. My wife’s family are originally from Elgin, and I know often people feel the diversity of Scotland is not sometimes appreciated in other parts of the UK. 

My commitment, the Labour Party commitment, is not just to turn the UK from being one of the worst performing major economies to being the best. It’s to do so in a way which benefits every part of the UK, and everyone within it. I don’t want to live in a country that looks like Portugal with Singapore at the bottom. I want every part of the UK to thrive. That underpins everything that we propose to do. 

The Labour agenda has two clear priorities, good work and good wages. And I’m talking here about the kind of jobs you can raise a family on, own your own home, and have a holiday and a new car now and again.

Growing up I saw what happens when individuals are left to deal with huge economic change on their own. And I feel that the changes we will need to make to achieve net zero, deal with our ageing population, and ensuring technological advances are for the benefit of society are comparable with the big moments in history, the times when governments had to take an active role not a back seat. That’s not directing companies from Whitehall or picking winners; it’s setting clear policy signals and working in partnership with industry to achieve the results we want.

Take manufacturing, while the US and EU pull ahead, Britain a world leader in advanced manufacturing risks shipping jobs overseas because we lack the capacity to make semiconductors or batteries. Or in life sciences where we have fallen from a global leader to tenth in the world despite having access to the NHS. Or in new and emerging tech sectors, like gaming where we have sped ahead but the government has failed to catch up in terms of skills and computing capacity.

In this role I have the immense pleasure of visiting almost any company, firms that are truly best in class. I have seen how good we are when we get it right – so let’s get it right more often.

That’s why we’ll implement a new Industrial Strategy. And it will be more than just a set of proposals. We’ll create new institutions to provide stability, consistency, and long-termism, that we need, including a new Industrial Strategy Council, founded on a permanent statutory basis, which Scotland will have explicit representation on. And that appointment will be decided on, rightly, here in Scotland by the Scottish government.  

And then to turn around the UK’s awful business investment performance, and secure the jobs of the future, we’ll implement our Green Prosperity Plan, to respond to the Inflation Reduction Act in the US. The greater public investment we’ll provide will explicitly be aimed at leveraging in the greater private investment we need. Some of our first priorities will be the transition to Green steel; the development of battery gigafactories; green hydrogen; and sustainable aviation fuel.

Energy costs are hurting us all, families struggling to pay bills and businesses forced to up prices or shut up shop because of soaring costs. We cannot achieve economic security for businesses and families without transitioning to domestic, clean energy.

My colleague Ed Milliband will be laying out Labour’s plans in more detail next week on Labour’s plans to make the UK a clean energy superpower by 2030. Doubling our onshore wind capacity to 30GW; increasing offshore wind capacity to at least 75GW by 2035; and tripling solar power. 

We also believe tidal power could play a role, and that some new nuclear is essential – though for Scotland that would clearly require a change in the current Scottish Government policy. These are huge opportunities for Scotland, where the scale of the UK combined with our geography represents a genuine competitive advantage.

Of course, I cannot talk about the opportunities of transition without addressing north sea oil and gas – a proud industry and Scottish success story. There is no doubt the transition away from fossil fuels needs to happen at pace, but north sea oil and gas will play a crucial role in that transition. We need to use the time that resource provides us to make the changes in our economy and society that change will necessitate  and the skills and expertise of oil and gas workers will be vital as we move to different sources of energy. 

We also strongly support hydrogen and Carbon Capture and Storage. But Labour is not going to make the same mistakes that the Tories and SNP have made over the years. Vague promises and failure to deliver and jobs leaking overseas. So I can tell you today that we will back the Scottish cluster up here in Grangemouth with investment through our National Wealth Fund to ensure the region’s industrial future and bring good jobs to this country.

And I’m serious when I say I want these policies to provide good jobs. Let me be clear Labour are proudly and unashamedly pro-business. And I do not see that as in conflict with our values and ambitious plans for workers rights. Business leaders know that their workforce is their greatest asset; they don’t want to see exploitive practices or engage in a race to the bottom.

That’s why under a Labour government, workers from Southampton to Stranraer will be protected from the outlandish behaviour of a minority of employers. And I tell you now, there will never be a P&O ferries fire and rehire scandal under a Labour government which is why we’ll strengthen employment rights across the UK. Through our new deal for working people we will tackle insecurity, particularly in the gig economy, while giving workers the flexibility they need in a modern labour market.

And I acknowledge Brexit is particularly contentious here in Scotland, given how the vote went. We understand that. Our position, is that if we want to tackle the fundamental issues of low investment and a lack of clarity, in economic policy, it is simply not wise to keep this argument going on forever. 

With Europe as our biggest market, Labour have a plan to fix the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and the EU  to make it work for businesses and households across the UK. That’s why we intend to negotiate an SPS agreement, to benefit Scottish farmers and food producers. It’s why we want to participate in Horizon, to benefit researchers in the great Scottish universities. 

Professional and financial services are a massive strength for the UK, particularly here in Scotland. It’s why we’ll seek the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, to benefit the incredible financial and professional services strength across all of Scotland. And it’s why we’ll seek agreement on better labour mobility provisions, including touring rights for the creative industries which are again such a valued and significant Scottish strength. 

Scotland more than many other parts of the UK knows the price paid when politicians opt for endless constitutional wrangling over the hard work of getting stuff done. A Labour government will be the change needed to focus on the whole talents of the UK and put past constitutional battles behind us.

As I said at the beginning, there are some items in our programme for England and Wales which in Scotland area devolved areas and so it will be matters for the Scottish Government. For instance, we intend to reform the apprenticeship levy to allow firms to spend up to half of their levy funds on other forms of training. However, under the current arrangements businesses in Scotland already have similar freedoms.

And I know Scottish Labour want to use their devolved powers on skills, engaging with businesses on reforms that will create a more responsive, more flexible, employer-led skills system. On business rates, there could be a more significant divergence. We believe business rates are fundamentally unfit for purpose, hampering businesses from growing. We think the balance between how physical premises are taxed, compared to online companies, is at present not fair or correct. We’re currently reviewing and testing several reform options, but our intention is to be radical. 

In the meantime, we’ve already said, for instance, that we would raise the threshold for small business rates relief from £15 to £25,0000, paid for by increasing the digital services tax. Whatever package we decide on, it will be a big deal. And I know that discussions about reform are ongoing in the Scottish Parliament, so I hope that our plans prompt similar ambition here.  

I believe Labour’s plans represent the kind of change, hope and optimism that I know at times has been hard to come by in recent years. Scottish businesses tell me they feel trapped between two governments determined to pick a fight with each other rather than focus on common goals.

We are in no doubt that turning around the UK’s economic performance is an immense challenge. I hope I have outlined to you that while the task is vast, so too are our ambitions. But we are not naïve or arrogant enough to believe we can do it alone.

We will only achieve the kind of change and progress we will want to see by working in partnership with each other. Business and worker, Westminster and Holyrood, public and private. No one has a monopoly on great ideas and ambition for our country.

The task ahead is far too great, and the prize is too treasured to be thrown away because we failed to focus on the opportunities in front of us. Despite the difficulties of the recent years, I think our best days lie ahead. And if we get it right we can create the jobs, lives, opportunities and hope, that every bit of Scotland, and every bit of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, absolutely deserves. 

This may be my first time addressing this conference, but I sincerely hope it won’t be the last and I look forward to drawing on the experience in this room to ensure Labour is in the best possible place it can be to deliver for Scotland. Thank you again for the chance to address you today.

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