by Karen Landles and Andrew Pakes; 26 March 2013
“Export is fun!” declared Lord Parry Mitchell, speaking at the International B2B Business Expo 3.0 event at Stadium MK in Milton Keynes recently. The sense of excitement and energy, of enjoying business and an independent drive, he feels are the enduring themes of the whole exhibition.
It is true the economy is struggling under the burden of austerity measures, however, business people in Milton Keynes were very clear that while government was failing them, they had the commitment, energy and willingness to innovate and to lead.
How good it was to see the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLAP), and hear their charismatic leader Ann Lim set out their strategy on supporting Milton Keynes’ ambitious plans to grow.
SEMLAP also took the opportunity to invite along Labour business spokespeople: Chuka Umunna, Shadow Business Secretary, Ian Wright, Shadow Minister for Competitiveness and Enterprise and Lord Parry Mitchell, Labour spokesperson for BIS matters in the House of Lords and a successful entrepreneur himself, who focuses particularly on the role SMEs play in our economy.
Listening to the debate it soon became very clear that small businesses have become frustrated at the lack of support from UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) and central government itself. From the preponderance of large corporations invited on international trade trips with ministers, to the effective exclusion of small business from public sector procurement, it seems small business continues to lose out.
Speaker after speaker told Labour’s business panel that from getting anything from loans to export support, as successful small businesses, they pretty much had to do it on their own. Some too were concerned at the threat to stability with the possibility of a referendum on the EU in 2017.
There were also general concerns about skilling people for a wider range of jobs, especially our medium skills jobs. No one came forward with a story of how government is either helping small businesses in Milton Keynes or even creating an environment where our businesses can prosper.
The Labour panel acknowledged that business needs an active government business strategy which listens to and supports all our businesses by providing long term stability which goes beyond the political cycle. As to what that may look like, Parry Mitchell and Ian Wright talked of a genuine British Investment Bank which businesses can deal with directly.
The panel and audience talked of learning from successful measures across the EU such as the German banks that work with small businesses closely year after year, and so can make genuinely informed lending decisions. Chuka Umunna talked of a joined up approach to reviving business and our economy that went across government, including at its heart Education, Children, Families and Housing.
They also set out clearly how government procurement can and should benefit British business. We can choose our own business as other countries do across the EU. There was too a real commitment to developing skills across the age groups. We are, Chuka said, in the “future game”.
Young people are graduating into a world of unpaid internships. That is something we have to change. People will change careers two or three times in their lives and we need to keep up-skilling and re-skilling as we go. Stimulus measures would generally not have an upfront cost except for a VAT cut, proven successful in the last Labour Government.
And so, after years of hearing this government say there is no alternative to their austerity “plan”, it was good to see a positive plan to invest and to stimulate, a plan we believe will support our businesses in Milton Keynes. Our job now is to keep it real. If you want to contribute to the debate please contact us.
Andrew Pakes is Labour Co-op Parliamentary Spokesman for Milton Keynes and Karen Landles is on the executive of the Labour Finance and Industry Group