I though our campaign was ok – but our lack of business strategy was perhaps a mistake: the Labour party don’t make enough of our small and productive businesses: the Tories are in thrall to the multi-national corporations and high finance institutions and the Labour party often painted as simply pro-worker in those very same businesses. Meanwhile those that create and run small companies or the ‘white-van’ men are pretty much left out of the party.
While out and about canvassing and subsequently working off my disappointment (and a very bloody hangover) in the leafy lanes of Ramsbottom in Bury (North) I was struck by the amount of white vans (and vans belonging to small businesses) parked outside very nice houses: four or five bedroom detached with a slew of cars parked next to them. These were businesses that provide door awnings, gates and fences, van hire, roof repairs etc etc and it’s clear there is a very good living to made from them. Some of these businesses will have a couple of staff, many will be father and daughter/son operations, virtually none will be aiming for the FTSE or global recognition. They just want a decent income, some to spare and enough to pass onto their grandchildren. They are not, for the most part, natural Labour voters. They see us as out to get their money via tax, bigger wage bills, ‘unfair’ employment legislation and poor economic management.
One man shouted to me that Labour had given him three recessions, another complained about the mess the country had been left in, still others will no doubt have been concerned about tax rises. It’s easy to argue that we didn’t cause the recessions, that we weren’t responsible for the global banking meltdown and that we had no plans to tax and spend (regrettably in my view) but we had nothing positive to offer them instead.
We refused to defend out time in government which had produced a decade and a half of prosperity for businesses large and small, we don’t congratulate them for hiring and offering wages that would make Tesco blush, we don’t tell them about out plans for helping them secure their futures and supporting difficult choices such as providing a living wage. We let the Tories talk up their cheap talk of apprenticeships (which we should be shouting about), we let them boast about their effective management of the economy (they plunged us into recession, growth is still negligible and they are flirting with Brexit – despite the enormous fears of those in business – we should have hung them out to dry), and they used fears of Scottish Nationalism (zenophobia writ large) to get over the line with a paltry 37% of the vote.
We won’t win if we don’t appeal to small businesses: getting local government employees and the low waged to vote for us is ok, we can probably count of the majority of unionised labour, and Guardian readers are more likely than not to be on our side. But we need small companies, white van men and people doing ok from the last 5 years to vote for us too. How? The current Labour leadership candidates have clearly come to the same conclusion but their tactics seem to be to move towards the Tories with austerity policy on the economy, cuts to services and so on. Personally I think this is a tragic mistake: if you can only offer the same policies as your opponents with a cuddly touch or two, why on earth would anyone bother. The LibDems are probably dead because voters in their heartland thought – well why go for Torylite when you go vote Tory? Why vote Labourblue if you can get the same effect (with the added promise of tax cuts) by voting Tory?
Big business (with their chronic inability to re-invest in r&d, staff training, plant and premises) and poor business management have been a long running problem in the UK, our workplace productivity has been damaged since the 1970’s as much by managerial incompetence, predatory stock-holders and poor planning as by work-place relationships (whatever Thatcher said).These days you can add tax evasion and poverty wages to the sins of big business. And Labour are right to go after the likes of Amazon, Starbucks, Tesco et al. However, we should be clear that we respect the efforts of entrepreneurs and small businesses: those that work hard, pay fair wages, train and encourage their small staff and create genuine wealth for themselves and for those they employ.
The Tories paint themselves as market-savvy, pro-business and pro-‘wealth creators’. That’s nonsense in my view. By encouraging privatisation they are giving away national assets to companies that are frequently based overseas, pay poverty wages, swallow up smaller companies via aggressive take-overs and then stick their money in tax-havens. Business practice is swathed in mystery, accountability is minimal and monopolies are an increasing problem, meanwhile money markets are fixed (see the recent Libor prosecutions) by friends of the government. Wealth is created but is hoarded by the already very wealthy, an establishment which is in turn protected by a network of private schools, elite universities and ‘old boys’ networks. Very little trickles down and the social assets that are mined by business (education, transport infrastructure, health care and social security) are scorned by the Tories and their friends. As wages have stagnated, credit has become a boom industry alongside the rentier economy. Super-sized corporations have been supported by the Tories and too some extent have become integral to them: big business CEO’s frequently appear in donor lists.
But slave wages in Tesco’s and the like tax advantages and global cartels don’t just damage typical Labour voters in the public sector and elsewhere, they also make it impossible for small businesses to compete on a level playing field. Try running a good high street green grocer with Sainsbury’s on your doorstep, how about a local furniture shop if people are buying on-line at Argos, what about a decent home for the elderly if you’re undercut by the care-home chains? Low wages mean that instead of shopping local, your potential customers look for on-line bargains with credit arrangements, who use discount supermarkets rather than skilled butchers, bakers and grocers.
The Tories support corporations that make it a near certainty that around 60% of start-ups will fail. They are not interested in innovation, research and design, local economies, local demand and supply. They want cheap labour for their friends and don’t worry about suffocating demand in local economies with low wages and expensive credit. The Tories talk big about business while choking off entrepreneurial spirit in this country, but if we don’t offer an alternative to their lies with a vision of our own we will not make ground.
We need to offer financial incentives to those that give a living wage to their staff, and deter low wages by penalising those that don’t in the mega-businesses (no private contracts, no tax breaks etc etc). We should have a nationalised bank that can lend to small businesses with a remit that gives them a chance to be successful – even if it takes a little time and support. We can offer tax breaks for research, training and innovation, while going after repeated tax avoiders – hard. We can support local economies (let councils invest their business rates, devolve planning to regions). Clean up the tax codes to make them easy to manage, transparent and difficult to evade, and help small start-ups with help and advice with their income streams and obligations (and pour money into staffing HMRC – at the moment they are chronically short of bodies and rely – to a regrettable degree – on the help of accountancy companies that in the meanwhile are showing their clients how to avoid tax).
While we’re at it, let’s look at food production and see if we can help out small farmers and shop-keepers and why not see if we can control the rents of high-street businesses (and private homes too of course) to encourage your local tea-shop rather than some multi-national coffee emporium.
There’s lots more we could do but the first thing to do is have a conversation with our local tradesmen, shopkeepers, producers and service providers and let them know that we understand their difficulties and that – unlike the Tories – we truly have their interests are heart. We are not sucking up to big multi-nationals, turning a blind-eye to their tax-evasion while pursuing small traders for a few pounds of income. We’re hoping to create a society where real wealth-creators are given a chance to prosper – the Tories, in love with their CEO’s and hedge-funders are not going to help them.
The world used to refer to the UK as a nation of shop-keepers, and this is generally taken as criticism. We have been under the malign spell of multi-nationals, global conglomerates and the establishment for too long in the UK – and we’ve forgotten that much of what we have to celebrate in the UK comes from the high-streets of the past: innovative businesses like Marks and Spencer, ethical traders like John Lewis, tea-shops with freshly baked scones, businesses backing their own football teams and cricket clubs, local philanthropists and shop-keepers giving money for libraries, cottage hospitals and parks. This is the Labour spirit – encouraging people to do their best for themselves and for their families, but free of the fear of hospital bills, failing businesses and un-employment.
We don’t need to change our commitment to our core policy: austerity doesn’t work and George Osborne probably knows it – he’s been in charge of a sickly and limping economy for the past 5 years after all, and following his ‘vision’ is foolish. Public money spent wisely can give us good local services that are transparent and democratic, and they can pay a decent wage that (alongside a prospering private small business sector) will create sustainable demand, so no need to use taxpayers money to inflate housing prices. We should support fair labour conditions, the protection of public assets (not the ‘subsidised public sector’ – a phrase invented by the Tories for their own interests) and the possible return of some essential utilities to the public sector where they can be more fairly managed in the interest of those that use them (rather than foreign shareholders). Social security payments and a protected NHS are nothing more than reasonable obligations of the state to the people who pay their taxes over their lifetime – ‘welfare’ is a poisonous term and we shouldn’t use it. A planned economy is the only sensible way of managing a mature country: letting the often chaotic and un-predictable market ‘take care of everything’ is a recipe for disaster. Regulating the banks? After 2008 how could you argue against it? Unions operate for the benefit of their workers and their industries: there’s no point in being a successful union convener of a dead factory, mine or workplace, so let’s listen to what the (democratically elected) leaders have to say, it’s as valid a point of view as that of the CEO (who may have his wage paid in shares, may be looking at a golden farewell if it all goes belly-up and has a ripe future in his daddy’s company in any case).
We don’t need to change what we are: we simply need to articulate our policies better, we need someone with passion to defend them, with the intelligence to argue them effectively and to stand up to the press (just like Ed did on his better days). Yvette and the rest are selling us all – Labour members, supporters and voters – short if they don’t stick by our heritage, our values and our policies.