Sir Keir Starmer

I recently attended a business event in Bury with Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer, and local MP James Frith, for a discussion on what Brexit meant for businesses in the regions, what the opposition’s plans were and how businesses could prepare for all Brexit eventualities and get involved in the debate.

As this summer’s heatwave peaked, I joined businesses from the heartlands of Greater Manchester for a heated Brexit debate with Sir Keir Starmer, Shadow Brexit Secretary, local MP, James Frith and members from the Chamber of Commerce.

Bury, birthplace of the black pudding, a commuter town for Manchester and home to a swathe of manufacturing and service companies has evolved since it first emerged in the Industrial Revolution as a prominent mill town manufacturing textiles and paper. Voting leave with a narrow majority of 54.1% the town made a pertinent backdrop for conversation with businesses on the effect Brexit uncertainty is having on companies from the region.

Sir Keir Starmer

Sir Keir was drawn up north by James Frith MP who had pressed the importance of listening to both sides in the Brexit debate, especially those in ‘leave’ seats. James explained “away from Westminster the prism by which Brexit is played out is driven by the practical considerations of how it impacts friends and family”. Those whose incomes and jobs stand to be directly affected by the conjectural Brexit debate that continues to take place in Westminster. 

Our Terms of Trade: the reality of Brexit for business campaign focuses on hearing directly from businesses across the metro regions and the importance of this was reinforced by Sir Keir who commented how valuable it was to hear voices from outside London and parliament.

Angela Merotto, CEO of Thumbs Up Limited, a plastics manufacturer from Bury outlined the looming crisis with unskilled workforce, which the manufacturing industry so heavily relies upon. Of their 230 employees, 75% are unskilled and half of these are currently EU workers. Since the referendum, Thumbs Up has seen a dramatic reduction in job applications. Angela is rightly worried companies like hers are facing a ‘potential hole’ in the labour force.

Securing the rights of EU workers is essential for this sector and Sir Keir agreed saying “rights should be unilaterally confirmed in the UK” explaining that an “arbitrary cap on immigration is barmy. A principles-based approach is what’s needed and so essential for our economy”.

"Securing the rights of EU workers is essential. A principles-based approach is what’s needed and so essential for our economy"

James Frith MP spoke about the ‘inequality’ across regions like Bury, saying companies need support to employ those in Greater Manchester who feel overlooked. Yes, there’s no doubt there are pockets of people feeling disenfranchised and without question we should be picking up a longer-term conversation about skills, training and education to ensure our own, local workforce is empowered to fill the gaps, but government must acknowledge that right now, EU workers are propping up much of our manufacturing sector and we cannot afford to simply shut off this vital pipeline.

With parliament in summer recess and just eight months away from Brexit, the government is seemingly even further from providing clarity on what Brexit will look like. There’s more uncertainty than there was the day after the referendum vote. Sir Keir understands this saying he “hears the plea for certainty”. He made the argument for transitional arrangements recognising we need more time. With a ‘no deal’ creeping back into the political conversation and the threat of leaving the EU in March with nothing agreed, it was reassuring to hear Sir Keir echo what we’re hearing from our business members in his speech - “there is nothing good about a ‘no deal’”.

The conversation moved to borders and the inextricable reliance on a customs union and a strong, single market to retain the current freedoms and frictionless trade. I shared our insights from the recent visit to the Channel Tunnel, which as a hard border with France would offer virtually no tolerance or capacity for increased border checks with the prospect of Operation Stack as a permanent feature as motorway traffic would be gridlocked back to London. As Sir Keir explained “our way of doing business has evolved according to the single market”. Many manufacturing companies adopt the ‘just in time’ model, with components, raw materials and market-ready products held for sometimes just a matter of hours which relies on effortless cross-border transport. In adopting this effective approach, we have become reliant on the customs union and the single market.

The Article 50 deal is anticipated for October at the earliest and with countdown clock ticking loudly, this will be a time of high anxiety for businesses as it goes to a Commons vote. Sir Keir warned the audience that ‘autumn will be a turbulent time’ and he urged businesses to make sure their voice is being heard.

Sir Keir Starmer