Are Labour ready to change their attitude towards the self-employed?
A dimly lit comedy club at the Albert Dock was the setting for a fringe event that tackled a subject ironically seen as something of a punchline for Labour over the years: embracing the business community and the self-employed workforce.
The event, supported by Progress, and titled Changing perceptions: How can Labour become the party of microbusinesses and the self-employed?, gathered politicians, business leaders and the general public to tackle Labour’s past, present and future relationship with the UK’s smallest businesses.
The expert panel comprised of Jamie Reed MP, John Park, Assistant General Secretary of Trade Union group Community, IPSE Director of Policy, Simon McVicker, Seema Malhotra MP, and was Chaired by Sarah Hayward, Leader of Camden Council.
Past mistakes recognised
“The backing of the smallest businesses falls directly in line with traditional labour values”. This was uttered early on in the fringe by McVicker, and really captures the frustration towards the Party’s attitude of the sector over the years, while highlighting the opportunity there to fully get behind self-employed people.
It was jumped on by Reed, who was blunt when describing Labour’s past attitude: “There is a real issue of understanding the modern world of work within the Labour Party”. He went on to explain that there is a big gap between how the economy functions and how the Labour Party thinks the economy functions. Malhotra agreed with Reed: “What we want in the Labour Party is an agenda that focuses on the positives of self-employment and enterprise”.
Reed and Malhotra’s attitudes are refreshing – it is often argued that Labour have been guilty of a poor and negative attitude towards the UK’s flexible workforce on many occasions in the past, but there is optimism here that the seeds of change are being planted within the party.
Malhotra stressed the need for much more enterprise education in schools, with which IPSE couldn’t agree more. She then added: “There is very little to help young people in education set up their business…this isn’t good enough.” IPSE are doing a lot of work in educating young people on the benefits and challenges of self-employment as a career option, so it’s good to see a politician openly supporting this and calling for the government to do more.
Malhotra reflected briefly on how Labour needs to draw attention to the inequalities facing women in self-employment, including fair maternity pay - something IPSE has long called for and also recommended in February’s Deane Review – as “it would help Britain close the gender pay gap”.
Park, one of the leading voices within the union movement, has an optimistic view of the self-employed, and also one of regret towards the union’s attitude to the sector in the past: “Self-employment creates a challenge for the trade union movement – but it also provides us with an opportunity”. Park went on to say that many of the protections offered by unions could easily be modified for the self-employed.
Along with Park, it appears other Unions are now engaging more with the self-employed. At a recent TUC congress, a motion was raised highlighting the problems the self-employed face with government’s Making Tax Digital plans, as well as calls to support freelancers around intellectual property and fair contracts.
Understanding the challenges
The audience appeared to be pro-self-employment too, and interacted with the panel throughout the event. One hot topic raised was the huge issue of late payment, where McVicker was able to chip in highlighting the need for a tough Small Business Commissioner – with the ability to name and shame those that pay late. “The Commissioner needs stature, so when it rings up a big business – that business listens. The Australian model has been extremely successful, and is the perfect example for the UK to follow.”
The panel shared the concerns over unpaid work, and the need for Labour to put more of a spotlight on the issue. McVicker stated that freelancers are all too often exploited by this – particularly in the creative sector. There were numerous nods of agreement across the room after his comment.
Near the end of the event, one audience member expressed their disappointment at how “business” has for too long been a "dirty word” within the labour party. The panel enthusiastically agreed, and said it was time for Labour to cater its message to show how it would be able to support microbusinesses.
During his conference speech, the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell expressed a desire to create an “entrepreneurial state” working with the “wealth creators”. Yet there was no acknowledgment that these wealth creators want to work flexibly. In fact just a suggestion that those who are self-employed are forced into working this way.
If Labour really want to embrace “The workforce of the future” as McVicker stated during the event, then words are no longer enough. They need to accept that many love working this way and create policy to support this ever growing workforce.
Policy, Late Payments