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.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.