By Alex Smith and Luke Bozier
Since the credit crunch, it’s become unfashionable in the Labour Party to praise capitalism. The mood in our movement towards wealth creation and enterprise has taken a decidedly negative turn. Many people are rightly upset at the recklessness we’ve seen in the financial services industry; stubbornly high unemployment and low growth add fuel to that fire. But while much of that frustration is warranted, Labour as a party must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Britain has always been an enterprising country. Indeed, it was Napoleon Bonaparte who said, “England is a nation of shopkeepers”. Capitalism might be in something of a crisis, but no matter how hard some of the left might wish it, it’s not going to go away. As Labour carries out its policy reviews, therefore, Ed Miliband’s party must place a commitment to business at the heart of what it stands for. And it must develop new processes in its party organisation to facilitate a broader and deeper relationship with businesspeople.
Enterprise is not just about the City of London. In fact, ours is a country with nearly five million small businesses. Together, those businesses – cafes, confectioners and consultancies – employ some 14 million people. Enterprise isn’t about complex financial products or bankers’ bonuses – it’s about the small companies and independent traders who create the bulk of jobs and hold our communities together. It’s about building lives for people and their families and expanding opportunity. Business is at the core of what it means to be Labour.
And yet, in the debate about where Labour goes next, after the recession and the bitter 2010 election defeat, we have failed to set out a convincing vision for the future of our economy. We are letting the Tories take the lead. An Ipsos-Mori poll this autumn showed that only 23% of the public prefer Labour’s policies when it comes to managing the economy; 33% prefer Tory policies. That gap has increased by seven percentage points in 2011; we’ve lost a net 35 percentage points to the Tories since 2007.
It would only be a start, but firmly grasping enterprise, and placing a commitment to it at the heart of what we do as a party, will help claw back public opinion. The British public know that the way back to economic success as a nation will be found via the entrepreneurs among us. There is a huge amount of creativity and energy in this country which, given a little nudge, will produce strong growth and create the many thousands of jobs our economy now needs.
We live in an Internet age, where the barriers to entry to set up a company or to self-employment are lower than ever; that is a new economy which creates opportunities for many. But it is also a threat to others. Labour must understand and learn to provide for that new economy if it is to become relevant again.
That’s why we’re launching Labour’s Business today, a collection of thoughts a for how Labour can become the party of business in the twenty-first century. We’ve brought together successful business people, social entrepreneurs, tech providers, accountants, thinkers and public policy experts – people who have first hand experience of starting and running companies and of developing government delivery solutions – to make the case.
We’re publishing Labour’s Business now because we don’t believe that the Tories are the natural party of enterprise & business; in fact, it’s in Labour’s interest – and it should be at the heart of Labour values in this century – to promote and support self-employment and entrepreneurship. Our century puts the “means of production” in the hands of individuals – what could be more progressive, more empowering, more Labour than the opportunity to take control of one’s own economic future?
Alex Smith is former communications adviser to Ed Miliband, and editor of LabourList. He is a director at Future First, and a consultant for Champollion Digital.
Luke Bozier is a former communications adviser to the Labour Party and Tony Blair. He is currently setting up a Silicon Valley-backed cloud software company.