Chuka Umunna's speech on small businesses: full text

"We are the party of aspiration on the side of those working hard to succeed."

Speech to the Association of Convenience Stores Heart of the Community Conference in London

I was so pleased to be asked to speak today because what we’re talking about is not only important to you, but it’s also incredibly pertinent to the area I represent - Streatham.

It’s the place where I was raised. It’s the place where I learned so many valuable lessons of life, and the place I now represent in Parliament.

On Streatham High Road and across my constituency, in shops, on the bus and in my surgeries people tell me about the struggles they face, their hopes and fears.

The worries they have about bills rising faster than their pay packets.

The emotion, clear in their voices when they talk about the dreams they have for themselves and for their families.

And my constituents know a bit about retail as well - Streatham High Road is the longest continuous high street in Europe.

So in preparation for today, it was to the High Road I headed. And this is what local businesses told me:

To watch the video please click here.

So that was Raj and Naharajah and I’m grateful to them for helping to bring a bit of Streatham to you today.

They, like you in this room, who own and run convenience stores, tell us something very important about the British character today.

The determination to shape your own future – through sheer hard work.

Because working hard – all hours of the day and much of the night – to put bread on the table and serve your communities; that’s what you do.

Because convenience for us can mean a whole lot of inconvenience for you: struggling to make ends meet, striving to create a better life for your families and for your children.

And you’re doing it at a time of unprecedented change on the High Street, with the problems clear for all to see.

40,000 empty storefronts across the country: shop owners forced to close their doors for the very last time, the sale signs still hanging in the window and the post piling up inside.

And it’s not just our small shops.

The list of household names who couldn’t survive the slowest recovery in modern times takes your breath away: Woolworths, Comet, JJB and the others.

These are the result of a cost of living crisis, which is hitting our businesses as well as our families.

A crisis where business rates have ratcheted up; energy prices have soared; parking charges have put off customers who have less money now to spend.

But let’s be honest: they also reflect a bigger change in how people lead their lives.

The new digital age has produced great benefits for some, but has made things tougher for you.

It demands that you adapt and change, as so many of you have done: from the corner shop offering new services like Collect+ for online shoppers, to department stores creating great shopping experiences.

But all you’re asking for is a bit of help.

So - as the pressures on you mount, politicians like me face a choice.

We can shrug our shoulders and say “nothing can be done, it’s just market forces”.

Never mind that the heart is being ripped out of local communities as independent shops die and high streets become mono-streets, identical in every way.

Or we can act.

The answer, to me, is clear: we have to act.

Because Our community depends on it.

Our society gains from it.

And our economy is strengthened by it.

Why? Because, first, you are truly the heart of the community.

The rhythms of the community beat in your stores: think of the early riser out with his dog who stops by each day for a newspaper and a quick hello; the harassed parent on the school run; that impatient guy who demands to be served first because he’s double parked; the groups of unruly school kids spending their lunch money.

You know what I’m talking about: you see it in your stores every day.

The owner of a small business just down the road from me put it beautifully and simply.

He said: “I’m not just a business, I’m a community centre”.

He is absolutely right.

Second, the kind of society we want to build.

We have to act because starting and running a local store gives people the ability to be the masters of their own destiny – especially important in times past to those from immigrant communities who found other routes to success blocked off to them.

Entrepreneurship – running a local store – makes real people’s aspirations and is a powerful driver of social mobility.

So we will promote it.

Third, our economy.

We have to act because it’s in our long-term economic interests to do so.

Because the diversity and innovation you bring keeps the big brand stores on their toes.

That’s good for British retail and good for our consumers.

So we must give you the support you need to succeed.

And we can do it if there is the will.

In the Labour Party we have that will – because:

We believe in strong communities.

We are the party of aspiration on the side of those working hard to succeed.

We want healthy and competitive markets that work for all.

Now I know you don’t want to hear too much political point scoring, so let me give credit where credit’s due.

In inviting Mary Portas to conduct her review, the Government showed the right intent and highlighted many of the issues critical to the future of the high street, although – even she’s been disappointed with their follow through.

Broader measures like the Employment Allowance that cuts £2,000 off the National Insurance bill of all businesses are very welcome too.

And the ACS has worked with the Government on its recent Strategy for Future Retail, which contains many sensible ideas to improve policy-making and encourage the spread of best practice.

But here’s the thing: I believe the scale of the challenges you face requires action of an altogether different order.

That’s why Labour has different priorities and will take different actions if we are elected.

Since David Cameron became Prime Minister business rates have already risen by an average of £1,500 with another increase of £430 coming next April.

This is squeezing businesses on our high streets who are already struggling.

So – instead of yet another corporation tax cut for large businesses, we will help you by cutting business rates in 2015 and freezing them in 2016.

Benefitting 1.5 million business properties.

You know – there’s nothing stopping George Osborne matching our commitment to cut then freeze business rates in 2015 and 2016 when he delivers his Autumn Statement in two weeks.

He should do it. And if he does, we will support him.

Next, instead of sitting on our hands while you get clobbered by huge energy bills, Ed Miliband has made it clear we will freeze gas and electricity prices for 20 months while we reform a broken energy market.

This will benefit every business in the country – large and small except for six: the big energy companies themselves.

This freeze will save the average small business over £5,000.

On planning we would give local people a real say over the future of their high streets, we will give local authorities the power to create vibrant High Streets by ensuring diversity.

And we will look carefully at the ideas in Bill Grimsey’s high street review. Bill used to run Iceland and Focus DIY so he knows a thing or two about retail.

And it’s not just about existing stores, but about helping young people who want to get going in business too.

That’s why we asked the former MD of Innocent Drinks – Jamie Mitchell – for advice on how to support young entrepreneurs.

Finally, supporting you also means supporting your customers too.

The cost of living crisis means people can’t spend so much in your shops.

That is what is driving our desire to strengthen the National Minimum Wage and promote the payment of a living wage.

But I want to be clear: we will retain the social partnership model whereby the minimum wage is agreed by – you – business, employees and government working through the Low Pay Commission.

And we will not force anyone to pay a living wage, but we do want to help make it worth your while to do so.

In order to do these things we need to win in 2015.

Let me tell you, we’re working hard on that too!

But we don’t need to wait for government to act.

Let me finish by telling you about a burning passion of mine over the last twelve months, which I think encapsulates our approach.

One day, about a year ago, I was on the bus home from Brixton and I saw that the term ‘Small Business Saturday’ was trending on Twitter.

Serena Williams was tweeting about it, Jessica Alba, and other celebs.

I search the term on Google and I discovered what all the fuss was about.

On one of the busiest shopping days in America, people are encouraged to spend their money locally, with small firms and to celebrate what they do.

And it really makes a difference: on that one day it helped drive .5bn worth of sales in their small businesses.

When I read this, I thought: we have to do this here.

So I suggested we hold it on Saturday 7 December – one of the busiest shopping days of our year.

We put out the call for people to organise.

And the response has been incredible.

American Express owns the rights to the name and they agreed to throw their weight behind a grassroots campaign for the very first UK Small Business Saturday.

Business organisations large and small – including, of course, the ACS – representing over one million businesses support it.

It celebrates local firms, attracts new custom to them and perhaps inspires others to start their own businesses too.

Bigger businesses, like Lloyds and O2, have endorsed it.

Over a third of local authorities, of all political parties and in all nations of the UK are taking part.

And I asked the Government for their support and they’re in too – Vince Cable and the Prime Minister have both signed up.

So now it’s set to be the UK’s biggest ever celebration of small businesses.

Across the country groups of supporters have organised everything from Christmas Fairs to entrepreneur networking events to festivals. The Small Business Saturday bus is touring the country.

Of course, it’s not the only thing that can be done to support small businesses, and on its own isn’t enough.

But it’s a chance to act together for something that we care about, to show the power that we, the people, can have.

Because in the end, we can give into fatalism, or give reason for hope.

We can rage against the dying of the light, or we can organise for brighter days.

We can’t do everything, but we can do something.

And on 7 December this year – Small Business Saturday – we will be doing something important – for those who dream of creating a better future for themselves and their families; for those who work so hard to realise their dreams; for all those who are the beating heart of our communities – you, our local stores, our small businesses.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. 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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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