We need active government to revive our retail sector

Without immediate stimulus, we risk inflicting permanent damage on our retailers.

These are tough times for one of the UK’s most successful and innovative sectors: retail. Whatever else we were up to during the Olympics, we weren’t shopping – figures from the ONS this week show that retail sales actually fell in August compared to July, with the hoped-for Olympic retail bounce sadly not materialising. The underlying picture is of an industry which, despite being worth more to our economy than the whole of the manufacturing sector, and employing one in ten workers, has still not recovered its 2007 position relative to other sectors. 

As I said when I addressed more than a thousand industry leaders at the British Retail Consortium’s Annual Dinner this week, this is not for want of trying. Retailers come from all over the world to walk through British stores to gain inspiration and to poach ideas. This leadership is not just in conventional retail. As more and more commerce moves online, British retailers are adapting fastest, with a greater share of goods bought online in the UK than in any other major market.

The biggest problem for the retail sector is that it is the consumer-facing end of an economy hit by the recession made in Downing Street. Householders facing a squeeze on their incomes today and lacking confidence about what the future might hold are, understandably, reluctant to spend. The longer this economic malaise continues, the more our national debt will rise and the more permanent damage it will do to our economy. In practical terms, this means the drying up of investment in future capacity, the scarring effects on young people whose first experience of the labour market is unemployment, as well as the decline in the skills of those who have lost their jobs.

We must bring the public finances into balance as soon as we can. But a stalled economy today means that borrowing is rising, and the ambition of fiscal balance is further away. In the meantime, we are all worse off today and the future success of our economy is held back. 

That is why Labour is calling for an immediate stimulus through our five-point plan for jobs and growth. These are common sense measures, each one backed by business, based on the right diagnosis. A temporary VAT cut, like that introduced by Alistair Darling in 2008, would make a real difference, getting the economy moving, orders on books and cash registers ringing once again.

In difficult times, our retailers are working hard to respond to the changing demands of consumers, who are increasingly shopping through multiple channels, at all times of day and night, and are becoming more focused on the shopping ‘experience’: not just on the value of a brand, but also on the values it represents. These trends offer big opportunities for companies willing to rise to this challenge – and increasingly it is retailers leading the way.

So, we see retailers embracing their responsibilities to the environment, realising the opportunities of this approach and valuing their customers as partners in this task, alongside taking an active interest in improving their local communities by considering their impact on the areas in which they operate and looking for ways to source more locally. This is better for our society and better for the environment. But it is good business too. 

These are exactly the kinds of models, practices and behaviours that Ed Miliband is talking about in his call for a more responsible capitalism: more firms focused on building value for the long term, which value and nurture their employees – such as the fantastic joint working with the trade union Usdaw in the retail sector – and seeing economic strength and social responsibility as two sides of the same coin.

This trend reflects businesses being moved to act responsibly in their own interest, delivering value for their firms and society in general. But government has responsibilities too, in supporting firms in making these choices. That is why the successful future for the British economy must be built on a true partnership between productive business and active government, responding to each sector’s specific needs and circumstances.

With the right action from government, working in partnership with business, I have no doubt we can get Britain back on the right path – growing again, competing again, pulling together, not pulling apart.

Despite the Olympics, retail sales fell in August compared to July. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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