When last week Ed Miliband declared in his conference speech – ‘One Nation Labour – the party of small business’ it was less of an aspiration and more of an observation. Much credit is due to Labour’s excellent business team for making this a reality – including not just Chuka Umunna (who was raised in small business household) but Toby Perkins and Ian Murray who both ran their own firms before entering parliament – and an energising team supporting them.
In March the report An Enterprising Nation published by Labour’s Small Business Task Force recommended the introduction of regional banks to support small business but was also ‘fizzing’ with other new ideas and looking at the whole scale of small business innovation and activity from larger small firms down to importance of the freelance worker to the economy.
Ed’s conference speech noted that ‘For too long in this country, we’ve supported some businesses and not others. Most of the jobs of the future are going to be created in a large number of small businesses’. He explained that since the Tories came to office they have ‘cut taxes for large business by £6bn but raised taxes on small businesses’ and that they had shortchanged small firms. To put it right Labour will cancel a one per cent reduction in corporation tax that would have benefitted a small number of large business and instead offer a cut in business rates which will benefit 1.5m small firms by at least £450 a year each.
If the policy announcements in the hall were demonstrating that Labour is the party for small business, then the conference fringe showed that it is becoming the party of small business. Gone are the days when the only small business fringe events are held by external groups.
Progress hosted an excellent fringe event on Monday with Toby Perkins. The main point of the event with Shawbrook bank was about getting funding to small business. Shawbrook’s stated modus operandi is not to feed figures into a computer and get an answer but to make decisions based on getting to know a business. Beyond this there was discussion about the need for better mentoring between small business people, some of which has been lost since 2010.
Last week LFIG and the Labour Small Business Forum’s event sponsored by the Process and Packaging Machinery Association saw their fringe event became standing room only with 70+ and others unable to fit in. I chaired the meeting and we began with a large Labour panel – Toby Perkins, chair of Labour’s Small Business Taskforce Bill Thomas, PPC for Reading West Victoria Groulef, chair of the all-party inquiry into late payments Debbie Abrahams, and Andrew Burke – self-employment and freelancing – from Cranfield University, who, though independent, was a member of Labour’s Small Business Task Force.
The discussion was wide-ranging, also touching on the issues of funding and mentoring but as well as the role and importance of freelancers in the economy and the issue of late payments and the need for small business to have a higher profile in a future – something that seems to be clearly on the cards.
Some panel members asked to leave early for another function, so in demonstrating our understanding of flexible working we let them go and brought in as freelance replacements: Mike Cherry, national policy chairman from the Federation of Small Business, and Simon McVicker of the PCG, the freelancers’ association.
There is a real appetite for this discussion in the Labour party and the future candidates programme is also delivering small business candidates at the next general election – though a few more are needed. But the most rewarding part of the meetings was the realisation that the majority of the attendees and all the questions came from delegates and Labour party members. On the evidence of conference alone Labour is clearly becoming both the party of and for small business.
Philip Ross is chair of the Labour Small Business Forum and tweets @PhilipRossLGC
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