Tony Danker, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, the UK’s largest business group (which speaks for some 190,000 companies) is an elegant orator on some of the country’s most pressing issues. He is equally charismatic on the topic of dress wear, when prompted.

“I would like to begin by saying, on record, that I think turtlenecks are entirely appropriate for left-wing intellectuals, but for economic intellectuals like myself, the open neck shirt is de rigueur,” he says.

With that one settled, Danker adds that he is glad to see that I (his charming and humble interviewer) wore a suit jacket over my turtleneck. “Too many journalists disrespect me with their lack of jackets. You, Sebastian, are demonstrating great deference. [Today], I managed a shirt and trousers [too],” explains Danker, tongue very much in cheek.

Moving to matters of greater import, Danker shares that, as a person from Northern Ireland, the FIFA World Cup was “entirely irrelevant” but that, as a father of English sons, and a lover of Liverpool FC, he can’t stop supporting them. “So as long as Jordan Henderson or Trent Alexander-Arnold are on the team, I am backing them all the way. If Gareth Southgate drops them, [I am out].”

Attitudes towards immigration are shifting

Danker, however, has far more to say on issues relating to immigration, not the England manager’s selection headaches. In November, he joined a chorus of voices, which included Next chief executive Simon Wolfson, in calling for eased immigration rules to tackle the UK’s record-high number of job vacancies.

“I have the most simple view about labour shortages and immigration: we need a system that assesses the skills the economy needs,” says Danker. “Step two, we need an assessment of how much those skills can be met, practically, by the British workforce.” If a skills gap is found, Danker says the government should use fixed-term migration in the short run, and secondly, have a skills policy in place to even out imbalances. 

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Danker believes that all politicians know that these gaps simply require more foreign workers, but that, politically, they are compelled to sound tough on immigration. In a world in which moderate, centrist views do not travel, politicians hatch projects such as the Rwanda policy, which sends signals that rise above the noise, he adds.

“But anti-immigration sentiment in the UK reached its peak in 2016, around the Brexit debate,” says Danker, who voted ‘remain’. “It has moderated since then. So I don’t automatically assume that British people are opposed to all immigration. I think they are incredibly pragmatic about immigration and want a sense of control.

“Over the past year we realised we didn’t have enough HGV drivers and NHS workers,” he adds. “So I think the consensus now is: we need to be more practical. We have unusually high figures of immigration at the moment because of people seeking asylum from Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine, but there hasn’t been a huge backlash to this.”

When looking at the UK, and the world more generally, Danker thinks that we have a political leadership deficit more than a business leadership deficit. “Protectionist, populist politicians dominating global politics: that is not good for the world. I believe that only business and markets can deliver prosperity for people, level up the UK, and elsewhere, and build world-class skills. Businesses can support people’s mental health and well-being, especially at a time when public healthcare systems are straining at the seams to catch up after the pandemic.”

Danker is still firm on the fact that the “baddies of capitalism need regulating”, but he thinks they are diminishing in number, at least in the UK, thanks to societal and generational change. “There isn’t an employer in the country who hasn’t completely reassessed their capitalism due to employee pressure,” he adds, pointing to flexible working, diversity and inclusion programmes, net zero agendas and mental health and well-being schemes.

“Now the press will continue to report on the bad capitalists, and the Left will always take that as a proxy for capitalism, but they are wrong, because the majority of businesses in this country, and I like to think all of them are in my membership at CBI, are changing for the good,” says Danker, adding that there is a “great opportunity” for the centre-left and the business community to work in conjunction.

A big opportunity for Labour

Danker has advice for any head of the Labour Party, in light of the fact that it has not produced many leaders from the business community, generally speaking. 

“I don’t think Labour, historically, has had a strong enough vision for how businesses can deliver a better society,” he says. “And this is the fundamental question for the left of politics: is business the problem in delivering a fairer society, or is it the solution for delivering a fairer society?”. It goes, almost without saying, that Danker believes in the latter. 

Maybe the Labour Party needs some representation from former employees of the CBI, perhaps even Tony Danker. When asked if he will run for leader of the Labour Party, Danker says: “I hereby announce my candidacy for… director-general of the CBI.”

However, on the future of the Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer, Danker is affirmative and chirpy. “People [in the CBI] are really pleased that, when it comes to business, Starmer is in charge, not Jeremy Corbyn. They are really responsive to and impressed with Keir, [Shadow Chancellor] Rachel Reeves and [Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] Jonathon Reynolds, and all of those frontbenchers engaging with business. These are politicians who listen and respond to business concerns.”

Going further, Danker is particularly complimentary about Labour’s “very bold stance” on green investment. “Keir is absolutely winning hearts and minds in the business community who are worried that the government is going backwards, not forwards, on that agenda. So that is very popular.” 

In a late January speech at University College London, Danker issued polite but firm criticism of the government’s economic policy failings – particularly around growth in the green sector. The UK is fast falling behind the US and EU when it comes to green policy. 

Beyond green growth, Danker also praises the Labour Party’s commitment to economic clusters as a way of ‘levelling up’ the economy. “It is a massive opportunity,” he says.

“I have argued for economic clusters for a while, but the challenge is how these regions are picked, by Whitehall, for funding. I don’t believe that Whitehall should pick winners, but I do believe that Whitehall should back winners.”

What is the difference? “Winners are natural, emerging economic clusters that are of a scale and capability that can genuinely compete in the world – and that, I’m afraid, is determined by the market,” explains Danker. 

The opportunity here is that, after decades of natural economic drift southwards, all regions of the country are now in play for a new green economy. “Just look at the Mersey’s tidal power,” says Danker. “The north-east is one of the most geologically interesting places in the entire world to do carbon capture and storage.” Also in terms of AI or life sciences, the opportunities lie beyond just the UK’s south-east. 

One of the challenges, however, is how to economically regenerate towns where there is no economic advantage. “That is very hard. I’ll be honest,” says Danker. “If you want to work with the grain of the market economy, then you have to go where there is clear evidence of great economic investment opportunity, and in today’s world that is now true in the north of England, where it wasn’t before. But that doesn’t mean it is true in every town, and that is an awkward problem for business and politicians.”