Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Encourage risk-takers

The private sector can deliver on Labour values, especially with the support of a centre-left government, writes Steve Wardlaw

It seems like it is not a good time to come out in the Labour party. And by that I mean come out as pro-business. I first joined the party in 1988, as there was a move to modernise it, and I felt it talked to me more as a natural progressive centrist. There have been some swings in terms of direction, but I had never felt vilified for my belief in the power of business as a force for positive change until Labour’s 2015 general election campaign.

I should be seen as a prime example of social mobility – I was an assisted places boy who got to university to study law when higher education places were still free. I trained as a lawyer and, 15 years later, was running a law firm – in part because of the help I received from the state. But rather than celebrating that and trying to get more people into my situation, the Labour party under Ed Miliband seemed to say that because I was ‘successful’, there was something inherently bad or dishonest about my conduct. By the 2017 campaign, I had become one of ‘them’ by reason of my success. That kind of anti-achievement rhetoric has no place in a party that wants to command a majority of the seats in parliament, and that believes in supporting people to reach their greatest potential.

In 2015, unrelated to the election disaster, I felt that I wanted to do something that was more socially beneficial. So I founded Emerald Life. Emerald Life is the United Kingdom’s first insurance provider that offers equality to those groups who usually get forgotten by mainstream insurers – the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community, women and non-traditional families. All too often, those groups do not protect themselves financially because they do not trust financial services – the financial sector’s focus on a 1950s model of a nuclear family simply does not resonate. At Emerald Life, we want to make sure that everyone gets the right protection, and that our sector treats all its customers with respect. As a gay man trying to buy life insurance in the 1990s, I know how bad insurers can make you feel.

We are a young company but we are seeing people really buy into what we are trying to achieve – both from our target markets and from customers who are not from those markets but who like what we are doing by promoting equality within a very conservative sector.

There is still much more to do in our sector, and the government could help. It is obvious that the financial sector is too reliant on a few giants. If the government wants challenger brands to increase and grow – and this is long overdue to drive competition, innovation and to increase trust in a sector that sorely needs it – then a fresh view is needed. To be fair to Miliband, he championed brands who stood up to unfair practices. At a time of massive political uncertainty, people tend to want to take fewer risks. Risk-taking is an essential part of enterprise and growth, and the government – as with any government – needs to do more to encourage risk-takers and entrepreneurs.

So where does that lead us, and how should the Labour party view business in general?

This article is not designed to excuse bad business practices. Those who treat employees poorly should be punished seriously and rapidly, and there should be more ability to place personal responsibility on the directors. The same would apply to those who structure their business to avoid tax. Let us punish them not because they are successful, but because a mega-company’s tax bill should not depend on a secretive deal done with HMRC.

But we also need to remember that not all business practices – nor the concept of profit itself – are bad (as some hard left elements in the party would like to believe). Successful businesses generate jobs and they generate wealth and taxation to pay for public services. I believe that there should be a clearer social contract about how government treats businesses. Government will help smaller businesses grow through training, apprentice grants and tax breaks – a promise of investment for the future. And those businesses will be good citizens in terms of employee pay and benefits, consumer protection and, of course, paying tax. This is not a question of ‘picking winners’. In fact it is quite the opposite – all small businesses should be helped by the government, and they need to fail or succeed on their own terms.

Wealth generation is not a bad thing. Far from it. The help that we should be giving to those who need it can best come from fair taxation of a growing national wealth. The question that we should deal with is how that new (note that word) wealth is shared. And for me, a centre-left platform is exactly the correct place to be discussing that.


Steve Wardlaw is founder and chair of Emerald Life, the UK’s first insurance provider dedicated to equality for all. He tweets at @WardlawSteve 


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Steve Wardlaw


  • I don’t recognise this assertion that those on the left are anti-business or anti-profit. As a professionally qualified person pursuing that profession through the format of a business you are, perhaps, not typical of the areas of bad business practice. However, we live in a world where monopoly capitalism means that those that grow new ideas, to challenge existing interests, are bought up by the monopolies – protecting the status quo and the growing monopolisation predicted by Marx. No-one minds a business where people work hard and provide a fair service or product – but we live in a world of such fierce competition that Capitalism is quick to destroy those that don’t have an edge – a way to be better or cheaper. The result is endless scams and rip-offs, especially in the financial sector. Many small businesses thrive on over-charging, under-performing or advising the need for unnecessary work. The use of employees forced to bogusly claim they are self-employed, is endemic. For most, especially the elderly, negotiating the maze of technology and bullshit, is a real problem. Who dare they trust? Ironically I see a positive development in the “Local Heroes” business being run by British Gas – where a recognisable and “trusted” big business effectively guarantees work done by small businesses for people. I say ironically because I am relatively clear that British Gas consistently over-charge as an energy provider. It seems to me that regulation and accreditation of some form (already present to a degree amongst the professions) has become necessary for most businesses, not just in the interest of consumers, but in the interest of protecting businesses that play fair against unfair competition.

  • This “anti-achievement rhetoric” is a figment of your imagination and is itself a rhetorical device intended to belittle the concepts of fairness and justice in society. The division of society into wealth creators and wealth takers is a shallow and false description that only has any force as a campaigning device against the social provision of services. It has been successfully utilised as a tool to encourage the belief that private provision of services is a better option than public provision. Nothing provided by the public purse is any less creative of wealth than anything else. The knee operation I had in an NHS hospital by the surgeon on NHS time did not create any less wealth than the knee operation I had on the other knee in the same hospital by the same surgeon but paid for privately. The funding stream was just different.

    The social mobility trope is one that the Labour Party should balk at and never in serious conversation be anything but embarrassed to promote. Social mobility is a symptom of a good society and lack of it is a symptom of a bad one. The Labour Party is, was and always should be a party that tries to achieve social justice and fairness at every level of society but especially at the bottom where people need the greatest help. It should never champion the notion that any level of productive society should be so diminished in value that it needs to be escaped from. That categorisation only has merit when applied to the destitute. Any person engaged in society should be able to stay at their social level without others belittling their existence by claiming that moving out of their social position should be government policy. The solution to subsistence wages should not be to berate those who get them for not being better it should be to make the condition at that social position better.

    The feeling you get that the left of the party is against those who are successful is a product of your misapprehension that speaking on behalf of those less fortunate than you is automatically a rebuke to you. You come across as one of those meat eaters who thinks that the vegetarian next to them is only doing it to spite them or for purposes of being holier than thou. As in those cases I feel you should be aware; the world does not revolve around you.

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