Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) account for 99% of all enterprise in the UK. There are 4.5m of them across the country. The combined annual turnover of these businesses is £1,500 billion and they employ nearly 14 million people – almost 59% of the entire private sector workforce.
These businesses, as well as the people who work for them, are not the super-rich. They pay taxes like the rest of us, often struggle to make ends meet like the rest of us, and work hard like the rest of us.
In actual fact, they are “us”.
But as well as being the party of business from the centre, we can be the party with business on the ground. As well as encouraging an economy that benefits from the proceeds of strong, growing businesses, we can develop a community where local business people play an active role in improving lives alongside us.
Members are already working around the country alongside local businesses to campaign on issues that matter to the community. From Tameside, where a Town Team of businesses, Party and Council, made a successful bid to the Mary Portas fund, to Derby, where the movement worked with that most unique of local businesses, the football club, to campaign with Bombardier.
I’d like to tell a quick story about another example that has begun to take root in Cardiff.
In total, around 15 members have so far been part of a process that has developed something very intriguing for our politics.
Towards the end of last year, members began going around one ward in central Cardiff, Plasnewydd (plass-nair-with, said quickly, for those not versed in Welsh) asking people what they want to change in the area. We started with residents; knocking doors and spending around 5 minutes discussing the area and the issues, whilst also getting ideas for solutions. And then we moved on to the local businesspeople. We spent 4 sessions, over 4 weeks, going around to local, independent businesses of varying types, asking what it was like to run a business in the area and what one thing they would change to make it easier.
The response was mixed – from “I’ve been waiting 20 years for someone to ask me that”, to “I’m angry about my rates” to the somewhat inevitable, “I’ve not got time for politics.” But the theme was consistent – business people have issues that affect them, that make them angry, and that they want to change.
Of all the businesses we spoke to, around a dozen along the two small streets we worked on said they were willing to act. They liked the idea of working with the local Labour Party to take action on issues. And they wanted to do something about it. As we saw it, our role was to work with the businesses, come up with solutions, actions and plans. In essence, our role was to organise.
There were lots of issues that came up of varying sizes. The big issues were the pertinent ones and the ones we are often tempted to launch into. Unemployment, crime, anti-social behaviour and the cost of public transport all came up. We knew that we didn’t have the sufficient power yet to take on the bigger issues, but that if we built coalitions with the community around smaller ones then in time much more would be possible. So we decided to start small. The Liberal Democrats had said they were going to open up 50 short stay car park spaces in the shopping area. Unsurprisingly, nothing materialised. Parking may not be the most glamorous of issues, but in this case the situation has a damaging effect on the local business community. When potential customers are afraid of getting a parking penalty for popping into a shop for a few minutes, the local economy suffers. Nearly every business we spoke to raised this – the scented candle shop, the green grocer, the café, the Mod clothes shop, the pet shop, the off licence, the hairdresser.
The members then brought some of the local people together and planned their action.
The course of action over the coming weeks will hopefully see the newly-elected Labour council taking action on the concerns. However, maybe more important is the longer term effect. This continuous process of relationship building, joint strategy and action could lead to a strong, on-going partnership between the local business community, the Labour Party and Labour’s elected officials. The power that can be built through this long-term development will, in time, enable us to campaign on bigger issues with a much greater chance of winning.
This is not just a Labour campaign. It is a community campaign with the Labour Party at the centre of it, organising local people and local businesses around an issue that they themselves identified as something that will improve the community.
Central policy will do wonders for our relationship with businesses and we have already begun making positive steps with things like Labour’s Business. But to re-connect in our communities with smaller businesses, we need to engage with them closely; through conversations, through joint strategy, and through collaborative action.
This is how we can be a party with business, as well as a party of business.