With George Osborne’s Budget largely uninspiring, it is now Labour that is leading the debate on how to make to make Britain the best place it can be to start, run and grow a business. In the run-up to the Budget, Ed Miliband launched the final report of the Small Business Taskforce at a speech to the British Chambers of Commerce.
The launch of An Enterprising Nation followed a genuinely exciting celebration of the Taskforce’s work in vibrant Brixton market earlier in the same week. The event – with the exotic array of food samples provided by market vendors, speeches from Tessa Jowell, Chuka Umunna, myself and Ed Miliband, and even a dusting of snow – wonderfully animated Labour’s new appeal to businesses large and small.
It’s a message that is starting to get through, from The Economist, to HuffPo, to enthused Labour bloggers. The Evening Standard’s James Ashton enthused that “Blue-chip bosses report that Labour is listening to business right now, in a way that the Tories didn’t in opposition”.
The Taskforce was initially led by Nigel Doughty – venture capitalist, philanthropist and long-time Labour supporter – until his untimely death last year. To honour his legacy, I was asked to take over as Chair and had the privilege of leading a diverse team of hardworking, highly experienced and creative individuals on the Taskforce.
They included entrepreneurs, academics, private equity/venture capital specialists, local government officials and business people drawn from a broad cross-section of sectors, as well as a healthy sprinkling of LFIG members.
We also benefitted from the input of a wide variety of business organisations, including the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Institute of Directors, the Forum for Private Business, the Engineering Employers Federation, the TUC, the CBI and others.
Much of the attention on the Report focused on one important recommendation related to the establishment of a network of geographically mandated, regional banks – a British version of the German Sparkassen. As Ed said in committing to implement this recommendation in government, we need, “not banks that like to say no to you, but banks that know your business”.
This is an important commitment, but the truth is that there is no silver bullet for enabling small business. Even in relation to finance, progress is needed on a number of fronts – including reforms to the banking system, encouragement of alternative sources of finance, and greater access to equity finance.
So, in addition to British Sparkassen, the Report made ninety nine other recommendations – on other improvements in access to finance, as well as measures to raise skills, support innovation and create easier routes to market. This includes improvements in government procurement and practical and financial support for exporting.
We recommend the establishment of a Small Business Agency, modelled on the US Small Business Administration, as one of a suite of recommendations to improve the way government understands, interacts with and supports small firms.
LFIG has already committed to take forward work developing a legal and fiscal framework that properly reflects labour market changes to acknowledge the role of the genuinely self employed as important economic agents in their own right.
As a concept, small business is cherished in Britain, but its strategic importance is not always recognised. In all their diversity, our 4.8 million small businesses are critical in extending opportunity, enriching our communities and driving economy growth.
It is our small businesses that are giving the first opportunities to nine out of ten people moving out of unemployment. It is through small business that people are taking control of their own lives as well as creating opportunities for others.
Within the ranks of small firms lie the critical group of high growth firms that create more than half of all new jobs. And it is from small business that so many of the new ideas will come which will improve our lives and enable Britain to pay its way in the world.
With the Report, we have provided the Labour Party with a solid basis for wide-ranging consultation with stakeholders and small firms, ensuring that the efforts it is making to appeal to small firms is underpinned by a policy programme in tune with the real challenges small businesses actually face.
Bill Thomas is Chair of Labour’s Small Business Taskforce