We need to talk business – and women must be heard

Dr Liz Hind

Keir used some of his questions at PMQs last week to ask about business support, and we have seen speeches and interviews on this subject from the shadow frontbench. Labour is sticking up for businesses, and so it should. Rishi Sunak is nowhere to be seen, presumably sat in an office practicing his signature, while Boris Johnson is unable to answer the simplest of questions at PMQs. In the meantime, businesses are faced with another cliff edge in March. Someone needs to stand up for us.

Along with the health crisis made worse by Tory inaction, we have an equally severe economic crisis. Because we have had to lock down for much longer than we predicted after failing to get on top of the health crisis, liabilities and debts that we took on in the first lockdown are due to be paid while we still face restrictions. There are over a million jobs in the accommodation and food services sector on furlough. There is absolutely no point calling for an extension of furlough unless you are also calling for support for the people who are diligently processing those claims.

While there is so little coming from government, there is an anxious wait for anyone in a closed business. Whenever I write about the predicament of pub owners, I am always aware that at least we get some newspaper coverage and some support. I realise that I am luckier than some. For example, the wedding industry, one with many women-led small businesses and freelancers, gets hardly any coverage at all and has received less help even though the impact on their businesses has been felt just as keenly.

The impact of lockdown measures has had a disproportionate effect on some sectors, but within sectors there are further inequalities that need to be discussed. The approach to engagement with business has relied on talking to “business leaders”. This is not enough to understand, let alone challenge, the government’s approach. We need to ensure that all business owners are listened to, not just those who already have money and influence. Within the pub industry, pub-owning companies are being listened to at the expense of organisations representing tenants. People in other sectors will have similar stories.

A key section of those that need to be heard are women who are running businesses, or who would like the opportunity to set up on their own. There are plenty of these women in the Labour Party. I’ve met many excellent Labour activists who run businesses or who are sole traders. They are passionate people who care about their communities and embody Labour values of hard work, decency and fairness. Their stories and struggles need space to be heard. It is why I am deeply concerned about the confusion over how the programme for women’s conference will be decided.

Every issue is a women’s issue. Business is a women’s issue. In studies of the topics that women want to talk about, the economy comes top – because if the economy isn’t working for women, then it isn’t working. It is certainly not working for women in business. According to analysis from the Federation of Small Businesses, only 15% of SME employers now are women-led, a drop of two percentage points from 2019, and only 5% of SME employers are run by leadership teams where the majority are from Black and minority ethnic groups. The picture isn’t much better for the leadership of large business either: over four in ten FTSE 350 companies have failed to reach the target to ensure women make up 33% of their board. There is a massive waste of potential and yet another gap for women and diversity.

These are issues that we desperately need to talk about, and yet when a survey was sent to women in the Labour Party asking what they wanted to talk about, business was not included as one of the suggestions. I have enquired about how the results of the survey will be used and who in the party will have the final decision; it seems that the decision is down to the women on Labour’s national executive committee (NEC), but there is no clarity on how they will decide. I’ve been told that women can tick ‘other’ on the survey to give their own suggestions, but it is not clear whether these suggestions will get full consideration.

Women should not be corralled into a set list of issues. We should be given free rein to decide our own priorities. I suggest that any Labour woman reading this should answer the survey, tick the other box and make sure that their issues are addressed at conference. I will continue making enquiries about how women get to decide what is important to them.

Business policy is set to be an important issue this year. Entire sectors are trying to rebuild against the backdrop of Covid and Brexit, and we are unlikely to see a return to pre-pandemic normal. We need to be harnessing the voices of those in the party who have experience of business so that we don’t fall into the trap of believing that the only way to be pro-business is with low taxation, low workers’ rights and low regulation. We will only build the diverse economy we need if we talk.

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