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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