Labour is back in business for Davos 2023
By Amélie Bamford
With the World Economic Forum (WEF) due to start today and back to its normal format following a Covid-enforced interlude, the Labour leader and his Shadow Chancellor are among the UK contingency about to roll into town. Sir Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves will meet with foreign leaders, business executives, and other international figures as they seek to promote Labour as a serious party of government again, and one capable of working effectively with business. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has taken a different approach. Just as he initially planned to skip COP27 in Egypt, Rishi Sunak is choosing to give Davos a miss. To be fair to the PM, he has a mighty list of ‘to dos’: an NHS in crisis, rampant inflation putting pressure on households and a fear of being branded out of touch – a persistent concern for a millionaire former hedge funder – are all compounded by his rebellious backbenches. Perhaps it is no surprise Sunak is giving the Swiss Alps a swerve.
Yet, quite ironically, this year’s WEF is centred around the key theme of “Co-operation in a Fragmented World”. The topic is one that Mr Sunak could do with a quick refresher course on, faced as he is with a number of domestic and international problems requiring co-operation to solve. As for Labour, with the party pushing for an early general election, Sir Keir will be looking to capitalise on the opportunity to present himself as a serious statesman as he continues the party’s marked reformation out of the Corbyn years. Seemingly, the Labour Party is back in business… with business.
The contrast between the approaches is notable. Indeed, Starmer’s and Reeves’ attendance at the event increases scrutiny over the absence of the Prime Minister and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. While Davos often attracts a critique of being an out of touch meeting of a distant global elite (of which it is sometimes guilty), it is at least as true to say that at no other point will leaders of politics, business and society be able to engage with as many of their international peers so quickly – despite a reduced political contingent this year. From the arranged one-on-ones to the panel and networking events, to the serendipitous brush past, Davos is an opportunity unlike any other to build relationships for the future. If Brexit has taught us anything, it’s that good relations matter when you are trying to make things happen.
Of course, though the PM and Chancellor will not attend, the UK Government will be represented at Davos. Grant Shapps, the Business Secretary, and Kemi Badenoch, the Trade Secretary, will be the face of government. The decision to send lower ranking cabinet ministers will inevitably provide an avenue for the Labour Leader and his Shadow Chancellor to set out their stalls as the next government of the UK to an elite international political and business audience. Meaty topics such as climate change, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, workforce, employment and education, skills and learning, as well as international investment will all be on the agenda.
This is the first time a senior Labour figure has visited the conference since John McDonnell, the former Shadow Chancellor, paid an unexpected visit in 2018. However, his attendance was far from an opportunity for him to impress the multitude of attendees at the event, instead telling those he met that the capitalist system was living on “borrowed time” and if the current system was not radically changed, they would be faced with revolt from “ordinary people who worked hard to dig out of decades long austerity”. In stark contrast, during Labour’s most recent annual conference in September 2022, Starmer stressed that he was “not just pro-business, [but] want[s] to partner with businesses… inviting them to drive forward modern industrial strategy”. More recently, when discussing Labour’s aspirations for the coming year, he stated that the Labour Party “is no longer driven by ideology but is there to deliver what the country needs, and what the country needs is growth and a strong economy”.
Though Starmer and Reeves are taking a different approach to McDonnell, and to Sunak, they are not simply there to blend in. Both intend to showcase Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan – a long-term strategy for growth that promises to generate green investment through a public-private partnership. The plan aims to bring down energy bills, raise living standards and ensure Britain shows global leadership in tackling climate change. With Starmer’s hopes of achieving this within his first 100 days of winning the next election, he has expressed the need for a different way of working, striking up “the biggest partnership between government, business and communities this country has ever seen”. With Davos about to go into full swing, Starmer and Reeves hope to establish significant connections with leading energy companies, chief executives and other international figures who can aid the success of his Green Prosperity Plan and in turn alleviate Britain’s cost of living crisis.
With Davos 2023 serving as a key platform to promote forward-looking solutions, the PM may not only be missing significant dialogue with the huge network of 2,500 leaders representing governments, businesses, and civil society, but he may also be giving Starmer a platform – at home and abroad – to paint himself as a PM in waiting. Sir Keir has a prime opportunity to further his reform of the Labour Party, not just internally, but to the country and the world.