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Small businesses and high street re-opening

by Ibrahim Dogus

Co-founder of SME4Labour

 

Last week was the moment when Boris Johnson’s vision of life after lockdown collided with reality.

The prime minister began a crucial seven days for the nation by bouncing into east London’s Westfield shopping centre to promote the return of retail.

He ended by explaining why the ‘track and trace’ app – already delayed – may never see the light of day and simultaneously struggling to hold together his plan for catch-up schooling for the children who have been starved of face-to-face contact with their teachers.

And he was quite rightly forced into an humiliating u-turn on the provision of free school meal vouchers by England footballer Marcus Rashford.

In Labour we are, of course, glad to see Johnson fit again after his own ordeal with coronavirus. And we are delighted that the battle of the No 10s was won by the footballer – on behalf of millions of children. It struck a chord with me because I am one of many of today entrepreneurs who grew up on free school meals in the 1990s.

But, in regards to the PM, we are angry that so much of the relaxation of lockdown has been hurried and haphazard.

So it is time to set out what went right and what needs to urgently change to save our small businesses and fire up our flagging economy.

The re-opening of ‘non-essential’ shops on June 15 was a moment of release rather than euphoria. As someone who has run small businesses in the hospitality sector and the media I know that lockdown was tough and the easing of these restrictions was also beset by difficulties.

First, we dealt with the lockdown. I closed my businesses temporarily. My staff and I have been worried every day since – not as to when we would re-open but whether we would re-open at all.

Then we lost our income.

And we also lost those special moments that typify a small firm – fun with colleagues, welcoming the regulars and working together to overcome the challenges faced by all SMEs.

Now Britons must unite to back our small businesses. It is already clear that millions of jobs – primarily in hospitality – could be lost if the government gets this wrong.

Every firm saved, however, means staff continue in work while managers keep on spending on raw materials – boosting supply chains around Britain.

As firms re-open we must remember that health is the priority. I would be the first to recognise this is an extremely difficult balancing act but that is why we need evidence-based decisions and clear direction from the government. Sadly we are yet to receive it.

I am so glad, however, that Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s shadow chancellor, and Ed Miliband, the new shadow business secretary, and their teams have hit the ground running with sector-based video conferences set up to listen to the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who are most affected.

Throughout its entire time in opposition since 2010 – and, yes, I do mean under every leader – Labour has been a friend of small business and the self-employed.

By contrast, do you remember all those Budget u-turns by successive Tory chancellors?

Those embarrassing climb-downs came from the same party which now propagates the myth that it is the party of small business.

I have put my faith in Labour to work with the small business community. Keir Starmer, Anneliese, Ed M and their teams are committed to long-term financial support for SMEs and a furlough scheme that is sufficiently flexible as we entered unchartered territory.

On the day swathes of the high street re-opened they published their demands – which include clarity for businesses on PPE and sanitising, the need to work with local authorities, reform of furlough and an end to anonymous Downing Street briefings on changes to the 2m rule which prevents many pubs and restaurants from welcoming their customers once again.

I back these measures. And, as the owner of small businesses, understand why it is vital for an extension of furlough beyond October with varying measures for each sector.

Getting SMEs back on their feet will take time and that is why I also want to see three years of corporation tax refunded. It would be a simple measure that would prove the government has a plan for the long-term rather than just a reaction to the short-term crisis.

We know this government can do a u-turn. It has been forced into many by its mishandling of the coronavirus crisis. Let’s hope Boris Johnson has a better seven days than he did last week. There are tens of thousands of small businesses who will not be able to cope if he gets it wrong again.