Being back out on the doorstep gives us the unvarnished truth from the public. There’s no doubt that voters welcome the pace of the vaccine rollout and the government is benefiting from a vaccine bounce. But the public has also been forthright about the failures of a Tory Party engulfed by sleaze and engaged in briefing wars, rather than tackling Covid at home and abroad. The shortcomings of the furlough scheme for the self-employed; the meagre support for the aviation, hospitality and leisure industries; and the failure to reward our health workers with the pay rise they deserve have all been raised with me on the doorstep.
Whilst the long-term impact of the pandemic is not yet fully known, it is clear that our society and the economy are headed in a new direction. There is a clear switch from the high street to online sales with all of the consequences that brings, which together with a move to partial home-working may see town and city centre offices hollowed out – a seismic change not dissimilar to the closure of the mines and mills or the exodus of major manufacturing plants in generations before. With retail employment in urban areas already falling before the pandemic, there needs to be an urgent plan to shape the recovery to support workers and businesses, fit for the future. Fundamental changes like this require the steady and strategic hand of government – yet, at this crossroads, it is nowhere to be seen.
Business leaders, unions and workers understand the pressing demand for change. The recent failure of the Deliveroo initial public offering, on the back of ethical concerns amongst investors about the precarious employment offered by the gig economy, shows that businesses themselves are wary of returning to the old normal. A coalition of businesses is even demanding legislation to support better practices in business through the Better Business Act.
Yet the Chancellor has been missing since the Budget, and the Business Secretary is too busy focusing his personal support for businesses that have donated enough to the Conservative Party to send WhatsApp messages to the Prime Minister. The sheer lack of any kind of recovery plan is summed up in the government ditching its own industrial strategy, without any replacement proposed. The question we must now ask ourselves is how Labour can demonstrate our plans to support workers and businesses in the coming years.
It starts with the council and mayoral elections on May 6th, where many of our candidates understand precisely the needs of businesses and workers. Steve Rotherham and Andy Burnham have signalled with their employment charters just how Labour, and businesses themselves, want to support employers that invest in and reward their workforce. Sadiq Khan’s record level of support as a pro-business mayor who can balance the interests of retail, tourism, hospitality and financial services while promoting the London living wage shows just how businesses and workers are not as diametrically opposed as the Tories want to suggest.
These elections are essential to hammering home this message, and winning in May is key to our ambitions as a pro-business and pro-worker party. Tracy Brabin has set out a vision to attract finance and digital sector growth to attract the next generation of West Yorkshire’s industrial base of creative, green, hi-tech and resilient jobs. The ‘good business hub’ for Teeside promised by Jessie Joe Jacobs will turn entrepreneurial ideas into sustainable business plans with financial support, training and expert advice. Liam Byrne is proposing a bold green new jobs fund to accelerate the West Midlands’ position as the first zero-carbon city region.
Government, workers and businesses acting in unison is a core Labour value that wins the hearts and minds of voters across the country. Policies such as the plan to extend start-up loans to back the next generation of entrepreneurs signals that Labour means business. Even the Democrats in the US have realised this winning formula in their landmark stimulus bill that has small businesses at its heart, is pro-union and has the support of a large majority of Americans.
As a member of the Labour business executive, I know that Labour only wins when business is with us. At this crucial juncture between the pandemic and the recovery, business leaders and unions are crying out for a plan that can help overcome the difficult challenges before us. The Greensill scandal highlights the all too obvious truth: that there’s a big difference between what the Conservatives think it means to support business, and what it actually means. Labour has the opportunity to seize this, and give a new definition to what it means to be ‘the party of business’.
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