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Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the BIS Select Committee, the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Stratford on Avon.
After a week of campaigning, it’s become clear that Labour have abandoned their attempt to regain credibility with Britain’s employers. This explains why their ‘Business Manifesto’ was slipped out on day one of the campaign when all the attention was on Buckingham Palace, with all the enthusiasm of a vegan at a Texas barbecue.
Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, says they launched at Bloomberg to underline ‘the importance we attach to our relationship with business’. So inspired was Bloomberg Chairman Peter Grauer by what Ed Miliband had to say, that he chose to add his name to last week’s Daily Telegraph letter in support of Conservative economic stewardship.
The manifesto itself is exactly what you would expect from a Shadow Cabinet with virtually no first-hand experience of running a business. It calls for two new quangos, fails to name a single business regulation that Labour would repeal or reform and outlines some ‘tough’ decisions on spending, such as scrapping Winter Fuel Payments for the richest five percent of pensioners.
But it’s not all bad. It also includes promises to introduce several policies which have already been implemented by us, such as an expansion of apprenticeships (over two million and counting) and a Technical Baccalaureate (introduced in September 2014). Much is made of the idea of a government-backed Business Investment Bank. But again this was set up in the last Parliament and, through our Start-Up Loans programme, has already helped 26,000 entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground.
The only thing Labour has left to say on business is that our European policy creates economic uncertainty and is therefore opposed by most employers. Neither charge is true. The polling shows that the vast majority of businesses already support an EU referendum, following a renegotiation of our membership. This is because businesses recognise that the cause of uncertainty is not the prospect of a referendum but a deeply unsatisfactory status quo, and that pursuing reform and putting the result to the British people is the only way of resolving that uncertainty.
But Labour are not alone in having little of substance to say to Britain’s job creators. One of the things we learnt from the seven-way leaders’ debate last week is that there is now only one party in British politics which regards the success of business as central to the wellbeing of our country. The Greens and the nationalists are actively hostile to enterprise, the Lib Dems are indifferent and UKIP aren’t even trying to pretend they have a business policy.
So it’s crucial that we continue to stand up for British business, because no-one else will.
But of course that alone will not win us the election. We need to show that business is the means, prosperity the end: that we back business because of the lives it improves and the economic security it provides.
Take the issue of deregulation. We can be proud that we’ve led the first Government in modern times to leave office with a lower regulatory burden than it found when it came in. But we don’t believe in cutting red tape just for its own sake. This is about the young person who’s a bit rough around the edges but desperate for a chance to prove themselves. We’ve reformed employment law because we want employers to take a risk on that person. We need to make the case that by pledging to reverse our reforms, Labour would increase the risk of hiring and deny that young person a job.
In the last Parliament we cut the cost of red tape by £10 billion. Combined with lower business taxes and a stable economy, this has allowed private sector firms to create two million jobs since 2010. We are now in a position to target full employment as a credible, achievable goal. At the same time a rising Minimum Wage is possible not because government demands it, but because our plan means business can afford it.
Because unlike Labour we do have a plan for business: three million more apprenticeships, a further £10 billion off the cost of red tape, the infrastructure, powers and investment for a Northern Powerhouse, the rollout of our Help to Grow programme and a budget surplus for the first time in a generation.
In this campaign our message to the electorate is stick with us and we’ll finish the job. It’s a good opening line but we also need to say why we want to finish job: to create work for all who want it, a better life for our children and security for families. But we can only do it with business, which is why business is at the heart of our plan.