This week sees the culmination of months of campaigning and politicking from the UK’s (mostly) unbeloved elected representatives, with millions of us expected to turn out and vote in European and local elections.
[pull_quote_right]It was the image of independent small businesses that again and again was used by both parties (and the Lib Dems in coalition) to sell the idea of enterprise having a great role in driving efficiency in the public sector to an electorate which polls show is consistently cynical about privatisation.[/pull_quote_right]
Often considered a bellwether for upcoming general elections, there is little doubt that many of the increasingly personal attacks being flung between senior figures in our four major parties are inspired more by May 2015’s vote than Thursday’s.
With this in mind, many independent retailers will be taking a moment to judge which party is setting its stool out to best serve their interests and understand their needs. It’s a vital exercise, but one which will likely have depressing results.
Firstly, it must be emphasised just how important small businesses are to political parties. Britain is a country with a proud history of entrepreneurship and self-reliance and it is no wonder that both Conservatives and Labour want to be seen as “the party of small business”.
Yet, since the Blair years (and continuing into the era of Cameron) the plight of businessmen and women across the country is used merely as a convenient rhetorical trick to sell changes in our system in favour of corporations.
In 2000, then education secretary David Blunkett launched academy schools with the promise that groups like the Church of England and businesses would be able to improve failing schools. “City academies will create new opportunities for business, the voluntary sector and central and local government to work together to improve the life chances of inner city children,” he said.
This idea of the state inviting in business was then greatly expanded by the coalition with free schools, NHS contracts and much of the rest of the day-to-day running of the country being put out to tender.
Indeed, the Conservative manifesto in 2010 promised that a full 25% of contracts from the public sector would go to small and medium-sized business.
It was the image of independent small businesses that again and again was used by both parties (and the Lib Dems in coalition) to sell the idea of enterprise having a great role in driving efficiency in the public sector to an electorate which polls show is consistently cynical about privatisation.
So are local restaurants providing cheaper but tasty meals to local schools and hospitals across the country? Are businesses like yours really being encouraged to bring entrepreneurial skills to schools by taking on academy schools?
In reality contracts are being given out to massive corporations, a quarter of whom – according to the Guardian – aren’t UK based and therefore don’t pay UK taxes.
Yes it is a free market, yes this means a smaller state, but it is effectively a government subsidy for the likes of Richard Branson, while small businesses deal with overzealous local authorities, a far less forgiving taxman and laws such as plain packaging that highlight an ignorance of the basics of retail.
Of course there are individuals in Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems who understand small business (okay, maybe not in the Lib Dems). Plus, from the Conservatives’ breaks on business rates and national insurance to Labour’s proposals for a price freeze on gas bills, there is at least a sign that politicians know big corporations aren’t the only businesses that need support. Yet, as these elections get closer, none of our established parties seem to have proved conclusively that they deserve the industry’s total backing.
This brings us nicely to UKIP, who seem to be as angry at the backroom deals, tax dodging and simple heartlessness of corporate culture as they are with the EU. Are they the pro-business saviours that they present themselves as?
This election build-up has provided two clear reasons why, I believe, many retailers will snub the party. Firstly, any businessman or woman knows how important organisational skills and structure is to any organisation. Is a party so filled with gaffe-prone senior members really in a fit position to govern an advanced, economically and politically complex country?
Then there is the unmistakable whiff of intolerance that hangs about Nigel Farage and his colleagues. “If a group of Romanian men moved in next to you, would you be concerned?” is a question far too close to the prejudice which many immigrants will remember from decades past. With the independent retail industry providing a living to many people with origins outside of the UK, it may have cost UKIP a significant portion of the retail vote.
Of course, those retailers who do vote will likely make their choice between the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP despite these failings. Perhaps, it will be a decision inspired by one particular policy or the circumstances of individuals outside their working lives.
Yet, it seems unmistakable that the political landscape lacks a party or movement that speaks to the small businesses of the UK. A movement which could unite businesses into a community that could fight back against overweening regulations and corporate market control; A movement that could unite the farmer and the shopkeeper to ensure fair wages were given for honest hard work and inventiveness. Perhaps this election with prove the catalyst and it will be an RN reader who gets this movement started.