SME4labour organised a roundtable meeting involving MPs Chuka Umunna and Bill Esterson, attended by an audience of small and medium business owners. It was hosted in Committee Room 19 at the House of Commons and kindly chaired by Ibrahim Dogus.
Chuka Umunna opened by firmly restating Labour’s commitment to being the party of small business, demonstrated under the last leadership. Chuka brought up his own family connection to the cause, his father having run a market stall, and related several times to the experiences of business owners on Streatham High Road in his constituency. Chuka made a three-point analysis of Labour’s relationship with SMEs. The first was that Labour, being the party of the working labour, had to be back ‘full-throttle’ the business that provide the majority of private sector work in the country. Secondly, SMEs provide high streets and communities with their unique character, so support for them is a fundamental part of Labour’s communitarian values. Finally, he pointed out that setting up a business is an act of challenging the market establishment - and Labour is very much about challenging the establishment!
Turning to the topic of Brexit, Chuka spoke about the failure of the Conservatives to even prepare a plan for a Leave scenario, much less carry through on one. Their failure to do so has been directly in conflict with the interests of small traders: the 21% fall in the value of the pound has had massively adverse effects for traders on Streatham High Road, where 28% of the produce is sourced from the EU (to say nothing of the produce sourced outside of it). He believes Labour should hold ambitious goals for Brexit, seeking membership of the single market and affirming preferential treatment for EU and UK citizens seeking to move, whilst still tightening control on immigration. Given that we have already violated the “purest” interpretation of free movement - we aren’t in Schengen and we conduct habitual residency checks - this is definitely a worthwhile area of focus for the Labour Party. Finally, Chuka said that Labour has to side not with the 48% or 52%, as Theresa May is attempting, but instead represent the common labour interest that affects workers on both sides of the divide.
Bill Esterson endorsed all of Chuka’s comments and added his own family experience - his grandfather ran a cornershop, along with Bill’s own background having spent 15 years running his own business. He noted that in the three years since Chuka and others founded Small Business Saturday, millions more people work in SMEs, and millions more pounds are spent in them. He mentioned that the Treasury’s own estimations say as much as 60% of our trade is at risk if we revert to World Trade Organisation rules. He criticised the way the government sought a deal with Nissan, pointing out that the future cannot be made on a business-by-business deal basis: whole sectors are reliant on the outcome of negotiations which he added are now predicted to take five to ten years. It is in this context that Bill believes that Labour should aim “not just to be the party of small business, but of all business”.
Following their speeches, Chuka and Bill fielded questions on bringing small and medium enterprises into governmental advisory positions, the role of councils to enforce regulations surrounding migration, a second referendum, Labour’s complacency over the ethnic and youth votes, and the need for message discipline and a common line in the party.
SME4Labour would like to thank our guests who attended, along with Chuka Umunna and Bill Esterson for their insightful comments.