At the recent Progress conference, Ed Miliband gave a speech in which he talked about the need to establish a new political and ideological consensus, different to that of the post-Thatcherite settlement we live in now. But it was in the subsequent Q&A that one of the most interesting points was raised. “Small businesses,” Miliband said, “should be a natural constituency for Labour”. It is an area of policy and a section of society largely ignored by the party’s dialogue, but it shouldn’t be.
Small businesses represent many of Labour’s economic philosophies: connection with communities, accountability and high-quality work. For a “One Nation” party, with all of its Blue Labour flavourings, the idea of a connection between community and business is has obvious attractions. By employing locals and contributing to regional growth, small businesses exemplify the investment economy Labour aspires to build.
Those who wish to demonise the British left have long depicted Labour as anti-capitalist, anti-business and narrowly pro-union. As always, the words of Tony Crosland are a great help here. Crosland argued that post-war capitalism is not the impossible framework for pursuing equality that Marxism believes it to be – the Labour Party is fundamentally a parliamentary socialist party, not a revolutionary one. If the 20th century Labour governments taught us nothing else, it is that Labour wants to harness capitalism to achieve greater equality; the minimum wage from New Labour, the technological investment of the Wilson years and the Attlee government’s welfare state, are all examples of how the party has sought to curb the destructive tendencies of the modern western economy. If nothing else, this is the pursuit of 2012’s political buzzword, ‘responsible capitalism‘, a progressive agenda within the contemporary socio-economic framework.
Politically and economically, Labour is an anti-monopolistic party. It makes perfect sense for it to support small businesses in the face of large nameless multinational corporations. One of the guiding principles is that of accountability, for which Tony Benn’s five questions of power are always relevant: what power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you? These questions are far more easily answered when asked to a small business than a large multinational; an issue never more relevant than at the moment with the tax-dodging antics of Google and Amazon.
Labour has made its objective clear; to get people into good work and to get the economy moving, both of which are staples of the German business model much feted by the left. This attitude has been personified by the reinstatement of the Small Business taskforce and its resultant policy review report, putting businesses back at the centre of the push for growth and greater economic diverity. The 2008 crash and subsequent recession demonstrated the overdependence of the UK on the City and its lack of economic variation. Businesses, both small and medium-sized, will go some way to addressing this and toward meeting the challenges of regional struggles during austerity, injecting growth back into deeply affected areas such as the north east. The Labour Party is a progressive political force and small businesses should be, and are, a key part of its programme for a better economy.
Dan Holden is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds