Keir Starmer: Whatever the cost, we must save our West Midland firms
Businesses in the West Midlands must be given whatever support they need now to survive the coronavirus crisis, Sir Keir Starmer has said.
Speaking to the Express & Star, the Labour leader said it was vital financial support is maintained by the Government, warning the alternative is businesses going “over a cliff”.
And Sir Keir admitted defeat on Brexit, saying it is time for the country to move on from the debate over Leave and Remain.
Sir Keir also issued an open letter to E&S readers as he attempts to establish himself and the Labour Party as credible opposition to the Government.
He said businesses in the West Midlands had been kept alive by financial support, but that good work would be wasted unless it continues to be on offer.
The Government has ploughed millions into its Job Retention Scheme which has allowed companies to furlough staff and have the bulk of their wages paid by the state.
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The Bank of England also revealed this week it had given £16 billion of loans to firms, including £600 million to Staffordshire-based JCB and £300m to National Express.
A recession looks almost certain as a result of the lockdown but Sir Keir said the most pressing thing was to focus on how businesses could be supported right now, to try and ensure as many as possible come out the other side.
He told the E&S: "The most important thing is they get the support they need now because we're in the rescue stage, if you like, at the moment.
"We need to get to the recovery stage but the more businesses that are lost, go bankrupt and more jobs that are lost the harder it's going to be.
"So what I will want to say to businesses is we would support you now in these really difficult times so that you've got the ability to come back because once it gets past a certain point I think many businesses are not going to make it back so at the moment we need to see the money that's being spent on business support, which is expensive, it really is.
"I get that, but that's an investment for the next stage because once businesses have gone over a cliff or gone down the other side, the further they've gone down the harder it is to get back up again."
'Leave v Remain argument is dead'
The Labour leader faces the mammoth task of trying to win back voters in the Black Country who deserted the party in their droves at the 2019 election, mainly over Brexit.
Labour suffered its heaviest defeat since 1935 last December as historic safe Labour seats, including in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich, turned blue.
Thousands of voters in the region were wooed by Boris Johnson's simple pledge to 'get Brexit done' after being left unconvinced or uncertain about Labour's strategy. Misgivings over the former leadership and its manifesto were also reasons for the devastating loss.
Mr Starmer, who served as Shadow Brexit Secretary under Jeremy Corbyn and played a key role in shaping Labour's Brexit strategy, knows he has to convince those voters to return to Labour if he is to stand any chance of victory at the next election.
While the coronavirus crisis has taken centre stage this year, the leader is aware Brexit and the UK's future relationship with the EU will continue to be an issue voters remain passionate about.
Asked how he could convince people who may be suspicious of his and the party's approach on Brexit, he told the Express & Star: "By talking to them, by explaining exactly what we're concerned about.
"In my experience, when I've said what I want is for businesses in Wolverhampton to be able to succeed in the future most people agree with that. And when I say I don't want people to be losing their job over what comes next, most people agree with that.
"The Leave/Remain argument became so toxic that we couldn't quite get past it and now we are past it, because we've left, and my experience from talking to people who voted Leave is none of them want job losses, none of them want their family or communities to suffer as a result of this.
"We can get onto that more positive discussion about how we actually support our businesses through what happens next."
Mr Starmer, who was elected as party leader in April, also said he did not believe his time as Shadow Brexit Secretary under Mr Corbyn had tarnished his reputation among voters.
In a Q&A-style 'Call Keir' event with people from Wolverhampton over video conferencing service Zoom, he added: "The argument between Leave and Remain is over as far as I'm concerned. There's no point us going over that again and, therefore, we are out.
"The question now is what sort of relationship do we want with Europe because lots of our businesses trade with Europe and most of them say to me 'for heaven's sake Keir, whatever you do don't make it more difficult for us because if you make it more difficult for us you'll end up with job losses'.
"I think that's even more powerful now we've got the Covid-19 crisis because businesses are really, really going to struggle.
"My position now would be: forget the Leave/Remain divide, that's over, we have left, now concentrate on what the relationship with Europe needs to be. I think it needs to be close, economically. We've always traded with Europe, no-one wants to give up on that.
"Lots of businesses in Wolverhampton and the surrounding areas I've talked to, they want to thrive and survive, and I want them to, so we need a relationship that helps them."
Mr Starmer also insisted he was determined to unite the Labour Party after the infighting and factionalism that overshadowed much of Mr Corbyn's time in charge and make it electable once more.
He said: "One of the things lots of people have said is your party has spent a lot of time fighting amongst itself, whether they perceive that as left, right within the party or anything else, but I've said look, if we're going to spend all of our time taking lumps out of each other then nobody will trust us to run the country, so we've got to unite as a party."
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