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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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.