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24 January 2023

Labour has the ear of small business – let’s prove we can deliver

Keir Starmer needs to give SMEs a strong offer on skills, business rates and net zero.

By Ibrahim Dogus

When I founded the SME4Labour campaign five years ago, my mission was simple: to bring the voices of small, medium, micro, owner and family-run businesses to the heart of the Labour Party.

My story is the collective story of SME owners in every corner of the UK, regardless of background – it is the story of hard work and sacrifice.

As a 14-year-old Kurdish refugee, I knew I wanted to contribute to the country that had welcomed me. That determination took me from washing dishes and scouring kitchens to becoming a business owner with a chain of eateries in south London.

It’s just an example of the more than 5.5 million UK small businesses that, together, represent 99 per cent of private sector companies. Like many of my fellow entrepreneurs, friends assumed I would gravitate towards the Conservatives. But it was Labour that was ambitious for me, listened to my concerns, and wanted to level the playing field between online giants and bricks-and-mortar businesses.

After years of economic failure from the Tories, many SMEs are once again looking to Labour as the party to get the country back on track. But to win, and hold that support, Labour needs a solid offer on skills, business rates reform and green growth.

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On skills, the report from David Blunkett’s Council of Skills Advisers rightly puts apprenticeships at the heart of building a more equal country. From the perspective of my own business, I’ve seen how apprenticeships deliver productivity gains and can significantly advance social mobility. Research from the Chartered Management Institute has found that over 70 per cent of management apprentices come from families in which neither parent went to university – giving many of those who missed out on that chance the opportunity to not only access education, but to earn while they learn. A positive reform agenda from Labour can help reduce bureaucracy and stream-line processes, making it easier for SMEs to invest in the next generation of workers, managers and leaders.

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Ending the broken system of business rates will also level the playing field for SMEs. Despite 12 years in power, seven chancellors and soaring lockdown revenues for online retailers such as Amazon, this government has still stepped back from the changes needed to give smaller firms a fighting chance. Today, we need Labour to deliver a business taxation system fit for the 21st century.

Finally, SMEs need a slice of the pie from the party’s flagship agenda, green growth. The green revolution will bring new jobs, market opportunities and export opportunities. Many SMEs are already leading the way in sustainability, cutting down on emissions, offering local options and adapting to meet consumers’ needs. As we seek to meet the country’s 2050 net zero targets, Labour must ensure that SMEs aren’t left behind in the transition to a green economy.

While media attention has focused on Labour’s drive to attract and engage with large businesses and industry, the party is also becoming the party of those 5.5 million SME owners, with their voices being heard clearly. As we look to the next election, Starmer and his team have an opportunity to show these businesses that Labour has a serious offer.

[See also: Where next for levelling up?]