Labour Conference: How Labour Councils Can Support SMEs

23 September 2018

Labour Party Conference

ACC Liverpool

SME4Labour began party conference with a panel discussion bringing together councillors from across the country to share ideas and best practice on what local government can do to support SMEs.

A selection of photos can be found here

Shadow Small Business Minister Bill Esterson began the discussion by emphasising the important links between the trade union movement and the business community, with well-paid jobs helping to increase demand for goods and services. He said Labour councils have a crucial role in demonstrating what the party can do in power albeit in the difficult circumstances under Conservative government-imposed austerity. He highlighted the work done by Preston council, particularly in focusing public procurement locally, as well as Sefton council where they have focused on supporting SMEs through a commitment to prompt payment. A focus on towns, he said, was particularly important, given so many have seen such a steep fall in living standards and here local Labour councils can make a crucial difference. 

Rachel Eden, a councillor in Reading and the newly selected prospective parliamentary candidate for Reading West, spoke passionately of her own experiences of running a small business. Gaining the support of SMEs, she said, would be crucial to winning marginal seats like hers for Labour. She raised various measures local government could take to support smaller businesses, from making council meeting spaces available for those who tend to work from home, to tackling specific issues like the theft of tools from vans. SMEs can also do things for local councils, she said, giving the example of how small businesses had stepped in to effectively provide social services that would have otherwise been closed under financial pressure.

Kieran Williams, a councillor in Southwark and cabinet member for jobs, skills and innovation, spoke about the importance of going out and listening to the aspirations and concerns of local small business owners. The economy, he said, was fundamentally broken, with wages in Southwark at all levels lower now than they were ten years ago, despite the borough’s economy growing by 20% in the same period. This, he argued, showed that wealth being created in Southwark was not staying in Southwark and small businesses, which tend to invest locally, were crucial to efforts at rebalancing. There were simple but fundamental things, he said, that Southwark had been trying to do to support SMEs, including streamlining access to council services, and helping to connecting businesses with potential employees locally.

Nweeda Khan, a councillor in Preston and cabinet member for social justice, gave an introduction to the trailblazing work being done by her and her colleagues to work with businesses to invest in the local economy. The initiative, she said, was driven by the challenges the area faced from the economic crisis of 2008 onwards and the need to tackle poverty and social exclusion. Small businesses, she argued, were key to the aim of keeping the money for procurement in the local area. She gave the example of the council’s pension fund being used to fund Preston’s student accommodation, providing local jobs that in turn buoyed local businesses, rather than being invested by financial institutions elsewhere. Such steps, she said can make a real difference.

Mete Coban, a councillor in Hackney and chair of the skills, economy & growth commission, spoke about the importance of inclusive growth. He said it was crucial that local businesses and communities are at the centre of the changes transforming many parts of London and other big cities. He gave the example of Amazon, which has just built a new headquarters in Hackney providing 6500 new jobs, and the importance of ensuring the area’s longstanding SMEs benefited rather than being marginalised. At the heart of this, he said, was engaging with the challenges faced by local BAME communities, emphasising the need for diverse means of communicating as well as providing networking and mentoring opportunities.