As a former secretary of the Federation of Small Businesses in Leicester, the easiest way for me to bring an unnerving quiet to a room of small business owners used to be to say that I was a Labour party member. In my experience, small businesses have had a distrust of all politicians for many years, believing that they favour the corporates of the world. They know that politicians always promise to understand their concerns and their struggles but deep down they are not really convinced that they do. With the decline in trust in the political class in general, this, I believe, is echoed in the small business world. Small business owners, like many ordinary people, wondering whether politicians or even politics has the answer. Labour has to show that politics does matter in small business in supporting and valuing it.
So, where has this attitude come from about Labour from small business owners? There is the usual that Labour can’t manage the economy effectively. This is normally expressed by them saying ‘if we ran our businesses like Labour ran the economy, we would’ve been bust long ago’. Then there are the regulations, which they see as Labour dramatically increasing in their time in office. But really it’s the fact that they do not believe that Labour shares their values of entrepreneurship, hard work, self-reliance and building wealth.
If we look at the numbers, there are 4.5 million small businesses. SMEs account for 99 per cent of all businesses, 58.8 per cent of private sector employment and 48.8 per cent of private sector turnover. SMEs employ an estimated 13.8 million people and have an estimated £1,500bn turnover. From these few facts, it’s clear that SMEs are the life blood of our economy. They’re the engine room of growth of the UK and the employer of most of our fellow citizens.
Labour needs a culture shift to understand small businesses and their owners and what they contribute to the economic success of our nation but also, just as importantly, what they contribute to the wellbeing of local communities. I work with a project called ProHelp run by Leicestershire Cares, which brings together SMEs who give pro bono support to charitable and community organisations. They regularly give tens of thousands of pounds of vital support per year, often being the difference between the community organisation surviving or failing.
While Labour was right to bring in the minimum wage and champion current campaigns like the living wage we also have to work to make the life of small business owners easier, allow them to grow, find new markets and adopt innovative practices. Labour does have a good story to sell on enterprises with our strong links with the cooperative movement and the social enterprise model.
How do we make this cultural shift? It requires building relationships with small businesses in our community, understanding their issues and campaigning with them to bring about change which helps the businesses to be more successful. In Leicester West CLP we’re working together with Movement for Change to set up a Leicester Business Forum where the local Labour party can engage with business owners, listen to them and act on their concerns. This is vitally important for us in Leicester Labour as the national conference of the Federation of Small Businesses is in Leicester in 2013, so this presents us with a huge opportunity to show Labour can be the party of small business and entrepreneurship. It’s only through true understanding at a grassroots level can Labour hope to build the national policies that will see the SME sector lead us out of this economic depression.
Vijay Riyait is a candidate in the members’ section in the Progress strategy board elections 2012. You can find out more about all the candidates at the dedicated Progress strategy board election microsite
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