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:
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.