LFIG had the enviable problem of having a room that was too small for their fringe meeting on small business at the Labour Party conference. It was standing room only as sixty plus people packed into the room to hear the full Labour panel answering questions on “An Enterprising Nation : How Labour can deliver for small business, freelancers and the self-employed”.
The meeting was run in conjunction with the Labour Small Business Forum – a network of Labour members who own or work in a small business – and sponsored by the Process & Packaging Machinery Association.
There were plenty of fringe meetings on small business at the conference, but what was special about this one was that it wasn’t people coming to conference to talk to Labour about small business but Labour themselves talking about it.
The panel was chaired by Philip Ross and sitting with him were a panel of Labour supporters or those with a connection to the party. They were:
- 1. Bill Thomas – Chair of Labour Small Business Task and the report ‘An Enterprising Nation’.
- 2. Victoria Groulef – PPC Reading West and small business owner
- 3. Debbie Abrahams – MP chair of the all-party inquiry into late payments
- 4. Prof. Andrew Burke – Chair of Entrepreneurship at Cranfield University and member of Labour’s small business task force
- 5. Toby Perkins MP – Shadow Small Business Minister
The meeting wasn’t going to be about platitudes for small business, but about choices, issues and policies. Bill Thomas focused on saying that Labour needed to build into the department of BIS an administration with a real focus on small business as opposed to it being one of many portfolios.
Andrew Burke said that research was showing that ‘if we want the economy to perform and create growth then we need to look at what is driving the entrepreneurial economy’. He added that freelancers help businesses to manage risk and grow,and draft research figures were indicating that up to 17% of the workforce is freelance’. He noted there is a need to legitimise the freelancers role.
Vicky Groulef talked about her background in running two small firms and the need to ‘innovate with what you have’ and the need for education and mentoring to help people with running their own firms and the need to help more independent retailers.
She was really pleased Labour has proposed to reverse corporation tax cuts for large firms, and instead to use the resources to reduce business rates for small companies, a measure announced by Ed Miliband later during his conference speech.
Debbie Abrahams MP said that £36.4bn is owed in late payments, which compares to £56bn lend by the banks to firms. It is a significant amount and she has chaired the All Party Group on Late payments which has published a recent report. She said late payments could be seen as unethical as tax evasion.
On freelancing Toby Perkins MP talked about his next door neighbour who was an IT contractor. He noted the need to protect people at the bottom of the market from being forced into false-self employment.
In the questions that followed Bill Thomas looked at the legitimacy and importance of people working in IT as freelancers offering management and technical roles and that they should not be confused with other workers who might be forced into self-employment. He said “people are making careers of 30 years in freelancing.”
Philip Ross emphasized that “we need to recognise freelancing as a legitimate model on its own terms. Just as not every shop wants to be the next Tesco, not every freelancer wants to be IBM. We need to recognise that this is a legitimate model in own terms and provide the structures to support this.”
Three of the panel had to leave for another event and were replaced by Mike Cherry of the Federation of Small Business and Simon Vickers of the Professional Contractors Group.
Mike Cherry reinforced the issues around late payments and the need for more focus on small business. Simon McVicker said how pleased he was with the debate on freelancers and that Labour was taking this area seriously and paid tribute to LFIG, Philip Ross and Andrew Burke for the work they had done on it.
More questions from the floor followed from delegates who owned small firms or worked as freelancers, from people in graphic design, production companies, IT and engineering. Clearly, this is a strong demonstration that Labour is becoming the party both for and of small business.
Philip Ross is Chairman of the Labour Small Business Forum and tweets @PhilipRossLGC
Picture: Christian Ferrari