With 64 days to go until the general election, it would seem that most small business owners have made up their minds as to who best represents their interests. Or at least this is the case if last night’s Small Business Debate, organised by Enterprise Nation and attended by over 100 business owners is anything to go by. While just 10% were undecided on an exit poll, 45% were convinced that the Tories are the best party for small businesses – up from 37% on an entrance poll.
The debate took place at the London headquarters of the ICAEW and featured Tory enterprise minister Matt Hancock, Labour’s shadow minister for small business Toby Perkins, the Liberal Democrats’ ambassador for women in enterprise Lorely Burt and the Green Party’s spokesman on business, innovation and skills Howard Allen. While UKIP’s Margot Parker was noticeably absent, organisers resisted the temptation to have her represented by an empty chair. Although perhaps “empty vessel” is more appropriate.
The Labour party finished on 31% but this journalist maintains that if he had been holding his voting remote control the right way up Labour would have finished on 32%. Between start and finish, the Green Party increased their vote by the highest proportion, going from 2% to a whopping 3%. So there is still hope, Allen.
Businesses in England pay more rates than anyone else in Europe, so naturally this is where the first line in the battle was drawn. “We need to turn this around,” said Hancock. “This whole area of business rates is one that needs a complete review so we are having an overhaul.”
Perkins said it was folly for the Tories to both increase business rates on a “huge” scale over the last five years and to defer the review of rates for so long. As Ed Miliband laid out in his 2013 party conference speech, Perkins reiterated that Labour will cut and freeze business rates if they make it into office. Burt claimed the Liberal Democrats would scrap rates altogether, replacing them with a Land Value Tax, meaning large corporations with larger plots of land would pay a fair price.
A show of hands in the audience saw all but two attendees seeking to remain in the EU. No sign then of the “unhappy relationship” Hancock cited when he promised to hold a referendum on membership of the union. Burt accused the Tories of creating uncertainty. “It’s a very, very dangerous game Conservatives are playing by flirting with the exit on Europe,” she added.
On the topic of childcare, which is blamed for stalling the progress of women entrepreneurs, working mum and founder of Tea Huggers Ester Thompson asked what each party plans to do about it. Perkins said supporting women in work could alone be enough to tackle the deficit and pledged 25 hours free childcare for three to four year olds and said Labour would make school hours run from 8am to 6pm. Burt explained the difficulty of reducing costs due to market force constraints, which didn’t seem to go down well.
Emma Jones, founder of Enterprise Nation and chair of last night’s event, said: “Hopefully the political classes will have learned something from this experience – that small firms are worth listening to, that they are playing an increasingly important role in the electoral process and that by engaging with them, politicians can improve policy – and gain all-important votes.”
In the limited time available, there was little mention of the north-south divide, apart from in Perkins’ opening statement; no one touched on the UK’s much-valued tech sector; and the fact that the current government will make it even harder for small businesses to take larger businesses to court come April wasn’t even hinted at.
The Conservatives may have won this battle, but with over two months to go, and national polls showing the two main parties as being virtually neck and neck, anything can happen. One thing that is for certain: small business is finally on the agenda.