Sir Keir Starmer says that a major overhaul of skills training will help to “bring industry back” to the West Midlands.
The Labour leader said the region could be the country’s new green industrial base in years to come.
Speaking on a visit to the Black Country, he said improvements to skills training were key to achieving that aim, as he accused the Tories of failing on apprenticeships and the Kickstart scheme.
Sir Keir was in the region to back Liam Byrne’s campaign for West Midlands Mayor.
He visited Sandwell College, in West Bromwich, where he chatted with staff and students and tried his hand at a spot of welding.
He told the Express & Star that Labour were “fighting for every vote” in an election many view as a key indicator of his party’s progress since he became leader a year ago.
He called on voters to get behind Mr Byrne’s “very ambitious plans” for the region, saying: “I want to see him win and implement that plan, and bring industry back to the West Midlands.
“This was the industrial base for so many years, it can be the new green industrial base going forward.
“We’re fighting for every vote, but we’ve got to earn every vote, and we’re taking absolutely nothing for granted.”
Sir Keir said young people and employers were being “let down” by a failure of successive governments over the past decade on skills and training.
He said there had been a “massive drop off” in apprenticeships over five years, and that the Government’s Kickstart scheme was “only helping about four per cent of those that have lost their job in the last year”.
Labour’s ‘Jobs Promise’ plan, he said, would put a “more substantive” offer on the table.
It would see all under 25s, who have been out of work for six months, given the chance to do training, education or a get a job.
Sir Keir said education was a “huge issue” that his party were committed to getting to grips with, particularly as the attainment gap had widened during pandemic.
“We want to bring in a plan that takes us to a better future rather than back to where we started,” he said.
A Government spokesman said making sure people can gain the skills they need to get good jobs was “at the heart of our ambitious programme of further and technical education reform”.
“We published our Plan for Jobs and the pioneering Skills for Jobs White Paper at the start of this year.
“Through our Kickstart scheme we have created over 180,000 jobs since it launched, with the total number of young people starting their placements having doubled in the last four weeks.
“As part of the new Lifetime Skills Guarantee, our Free Courses for Jobs also offer adults the opportunity to learn and develop the skills they need at any age.”
Meanwhile, Sir Keir rejected suggestions that Mr Byrne’s campaign was “in trouble”, after being asked about an opinion poll that put him nine points behind incumbent Conservative Mayor Andy Street. He said: “What we’re doing is the hard graft, talking to people one-to-one on their doorsteps, asking them what matters to them.
“I am well aware Liam Byrne and I have to earn every single vote in that election next week, and that’s what we’re doing.
“It’s the vote a week on Thursday that matters above all else.”
Sir Keir also addressed allegations of sleaze which have hung over the Conservative Party in recent days.
He said voters in the West Midlands, who had turned towards the Tories at the last general election, should be concerned about the allegations – and reiterated his call for an independent inquiry.
“It’s not just one scandal, it’s one scandal after another scandal after another scandal,” Sir Keir said.
“Whether that’s Whatsapp contracts, whether that’s privileged access, whether that’s having shares in companies that are trying to win contracts from the NHS, or David Cameron accessing anybody he’s got in his address book to try and advance his own ends.
“It’s a pattern of behaviour. In the end, what ought to matter most to people is that it’s one rule for them, and another rule for everybody else.”
He added: “We need an inquiry to get to the bottom of it.”