Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour and small business: allies in waiting

How did Labour miss the nearly five million small businesses in the UK? The party must really recognise the existence of these millions of employees and how they live and work in 2010. Small business strengthens communities and individuals.

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Recently I read the interview Ed Milliband gave to the Guardian in which he said he wanted Labour to be the party of small business and the self-employed. An admirable aim, one which we put forward some years ago when we started the Labour Small Business Forum, which is a network of Labour party members and supporters who worked or had worked for themselves. We saw that there is a key Labour principle involved from the old Clause IV, which was ‘to secure for [people] by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry’. Being your own boss in a fair society is a good way of trying to achieve this. It is about empowering people, it is about aspiration and it is about building prosperity.

When out canvassing in 1992, Tony Blair was told by a man cleaning his Sierra that he had always voted Labour in the past, but now he had started his own business he was going to vote Conservative. Blair said afterwards that that was the point at which he realised the election was lost. If Labour wasn’t reaching out to such people then they were doomed to fail. That was nearly 20 years ago. Today more and more people work for themselves as self-employed or freelance or run or have run small business. Has Labour really learned that lesson?

The traditional view was that the Conservatives were the party of capital and Labour the party of the workers. In the early 1990s at one of the first Labour party meetings I ever attended the selection process was under way to choose a councillor for a safe Labour seat. One of the candidates stood up and spoke and explained that while he was a postman, he also ran the local fish and chip shop. He said, ‘people say to me: How can you be in the Labour party and also run your own business?’ To a lot of tutting, he said, ‘well I say that my children have got to eat’. It didn’t go down very well and he got zero votes.

I hope things have changed since in the Labour party, but one of the inherent problems with new Labour was that the public perception was that it was pro-business, and as far as many grassroots members were concerned, too pro-business. Though that perception wasn’t true among the small business committee even in the Labour party, despite its best efforts the perception was that it was pro big-business not small business.


Hopefully Ed and the other candidates along with many MPs have realised that small business is a key constituent in our community. But this constituency is changing. It includes not just the traditional array of tradesman, small firms making and selling items in our high street and in the industrial estates, but also an army of professional freelance workers working in the knowledge-based economy in areas such as IT, engineering and the creative industries including the media.

According to the Federation of Small Business there are 4.8 million small businesses in the UK (up from four million in 2003), of these three million businesses are sole proprietors and 1.3 million are companies and 462,000 are partnerships. Overall 97 per cent of firms employ fewer than 20 people 95 per cent employ fewer than five people. Over 500,000 people start up their own business every year and small firms contribute more than 50.1 per cent of the UK turnover. How did we miss this?

Maybe Ed thinks that the small business people and self-employed are a lost constituency and seeks to win them back, and hopefully the other candidates do too. But to do so will require them not just talking and saying nice things about small business but to embrace it and understand it and make a cultural and mind shift in considering it.

Firstly, helping small business isn’t just about providing extra help so that they can pay their taxes on time. It is about recognising that not every small business aspires to grow and develop. The lady running my corner shop doesn’t aspire to become the next Tesco’s. They are happy with just being a small business and earning a living for themselves and their family. Government support shouldn’t be there just to help them grow bigger but there to help them survive and sustain themselves. Ask any small businessman what changes they would like the government to make and they would say bring in legislation to force firms (usually larger firms) to pay their debts on time. The worst offenders, sadly, are often councils, government departments and the police. (As the Forum for Private Business recently discovered).

Secondly, they need to understand that small businesses often carry huge burdens. For instance maternity benefits. It was suggested in the past that government set up a fund to equalise the cost of between small and large firms. This idea – which came from Labour members who ran their own businesses – is exactly the outside of the box thinking that is needed. Indeed Labour has never quite understood that small business was within its own ranks, I think it always thought of it as something external to itself.

Thirdly, they need to understand the difference between freelance workers and temporary workers. The knowledge-based economy in IT and the creative industries are driven by armies of freelance workers. These workers are often engaged on short-term contracts for work on projects and to bring in expertise. If this is the employment and work pattern for the 21st century Labour needs to understand the needs and aspirations of these workers. They need to understand that many freelancers in the industries described above work this way not because they can’t get a permanent job but because they choose to. Freelancers don’t need employment rights; temporary and agency workers do. Freelance workers are often competing directly against large corporations in the same market, yet Labour’s IR35 policy treated them as employees for tax purposes and denied them the capital to allow them to invest in training and development or even any other business development. It didn’t allow them to draw a dividend on their profits they had made, the work they had done. But allowed it shareholders in bigger firms to draw dividends off the work that other people had done. That can’t be right.

I could requote the old clause IV – ‘to secure for [people] by hand or by brain the full fruits of their labour’. Indeed if I really wanted to I could quote Marx and mention ‘surplus labour’ and explain that exploitation occurs when those appropriating surplus labour – whether in the form of surplus value, surplus product or direct surplus labour – are different to those performing surplus labour. But that wouldn’t be a very New Labour thing to say.


But a New Labour word to use, is ‘modernise’ – Labour needs to modernise its view and understanding of the labour market itself and that people will not only have several jobs in their lifetime, will have possibly different careers and will often pass through periods of working freelance and running their own business. More people than ever before are now working as freelancers or running small businesses and they are key to our future prosperity.

If Labour wants to succeed in the future then it needs to think about how regulations benefit, harm or bypass freelancers, temporary workers and small firms. Acknowledging that IR35 was a mistake would be a good start. It needs to think about small business and the self-employed just not as being vehicles through which taxes can be collected, but as drivers of our future prosperity and key components in building a sustainable and empowered community. To do so Ed, David, Diane, Ed and Andy need to understand how all these modes of work operate and there are many of us in the party who will help them, because today’s Mondeo man and Clio woman have in the past and will in the future vote accordingly.

Philip Ross is the founder of the Labour Small Business Forum, a network of Labour party members who work for themselves. A former IT freelancer, Philip has campaigned actively on behalf of freelancers and small businesses. At Labour Party Conferences, he has chaired fringe meetings and spoke from the platform in support of clearer and fairer policies for small businesses.

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Philip Ross

is a member of LFIG and the founder of the Labour Small Business Forum which wants to build a network of Labour members in small business and identify those in every constituency. To get involved contact Philip at #philiprosslgc


  • I will try to reply but my last two replies have not been published. Labour The Party of Small Business I do not think so. We should be. West Norfolk’s economy depends on Small Business but most see their natural allies the Conservative Party . Why many think it not what you know but who you know, The Conservative Party is more of a social club than The Labour Party The members tend to have more disposaable income. Indeed I have had more work of members of the Conservitive Party . Labour could be the Party of Small Business but it needs to understand it is not easy to succeed. The Self Employed need help. When Labour was in power I contacted Business Link about training grants. I was told I would qualify for train to gain if I employed people but as a one man band with my wife nothing was available. How could I grow , I needed a mentor indeed a dragons advise. I have never heard of a Labour Policy Forum for Small Bussiness. I believe Freelancers are a diffrent catagory,

  • It is on the nail, lots of us run our own businesses and support Labour, sometimes in spite of everything. They say that because you work for yourself you can’t vote Labour, the problem is that deep down Labour has believed that too, time to change in both actions and words

  • Ian, your comments are interesting because it goes to the heart of the matter – what constitutes a business. It is not just about employing people, Labour needs to realise that working for yourself isn’t some sort of intricate tax dodge. One person businesses whether freelance as self-employed or via a limited company are legitimate structures. As far as training goes the key tools of a worker in the knowledge based economy are their skills and skills depreciate just any other tools. Eg we can write off against tax the depreciation of a white van but not the costs of training.

  • Philip , where do I find your Forum? I notice you Chair Fringe Meetings. Why isn’t self employment debated at Conference. Another area Labour failed to tackle was the abuse of Self Employment by large PLC Avon, Betterware, Kleeneeze, Hillary Blinds Index Books, Book People etc. In all these companies agents were classified Self Employed not allowed to sell other products, good chance with catalogue companies not achieving minimum wage. With others when you take off legitimate expenses again unlikely to achieve minimum wage . One sided contracts European sales Directive gave no protection and if you tried you could be liable for other sides costs. I am sure my list is not exhustive

  • Ian, another example is Parcelforce. they decided to make all their drivers self-employed and according to the Daily Telegraph – ‘After discussions with the Inland Revenue it has produced a package that avoids employees running foul of the complex self-employed regulations. Parcelforce offers a two-year contract with income linked to successful deliveries.’. Here we had the same deal a group tidied to one employer but nominally self-employed, but done with the blessing of the inland revenue. Of course if an individual had tried a similar contract with a client they would have fallen foul of IR35. Unless of course you are the head of the BBC who use to work as a ‘contractor’. Critics say that the Revenue aren’t that on armies of self-employed as it is more expensive to collect the tax, paye is easier to collect as are a few big employers, or standard contracts. The goal though for us now is to focus not just on what doesn’t and what was wrong, but what will work better, what tax and corporate structures will work best to build prosperity. See beyhond tax collection and focus on development, competition and prosperity. As for the Forum, I hope to do some work with Progress to setup and run some future forums and meetings.

  • Philip Would be grateful if you could keep me informed. It appears there is lots of work to do. I will mention one last scandal tied pubs , high price charged for stock which must be purchased from the brewery who also charge high rent. Often resulting in bankruptcy of the tenant. dreams shattered and on to the next one I will close and hope I get away with plugs for my self employed companies just to prove I know what I am taking about/

  • Spot on Philip. I’ve worked 25 years freelance, as a career choice, and it seems frankly immoral to tax us as employees, when we don’t get the benefits of employees. And meanwhile BigCos can get away with all the abuses described above, because they know the right people in HMRC or the Government. Labour’s been more in hock to big money capitalists than even the Tories.

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