As the general election nears, voters should ask whether the Conservatives have done enough to support the retail sector.
Five words. That’s all it took to show just how out-of-touch this Government had become from the realities facing retailers on the ground. At a time when thousands of shops stood empty around the country and consumer confidence was on the floor, David Cameron’s enterprise adviser Lord Young boldly announced, “You’ve never had it so good.”
That was six months into this Parliament back in 2010. Although he went on to resign over those foolish remarks, Lord Young set a tone that has continued over the past five years.
Despite the fact we’ve seen record retail insolvencies, a huge shift in consumer behaviour requiring high streets to urgently adapt to a changing retail landscape, and many household retail names disappear forever, there’s been little urgency on the part of Government to support the UK’s biggest private sector employer.
Policy has been weak, insubstantial and plain wrong. Ministers have cancelled a rates revaluation, which means business rates are still calculated on 2008 data and are now totally detached from reality – a move the British Property Federation condemned for embedding unfairness into the system.
And at a time when a growing portion of the retail market is shifting online, Britain as a country is still stuck in the digital slow lane. No wonder the Federation of Small Businesses continues to call for more ambitious targets for rolling out high-speed broadband to businesses.
The Tories claim to understand the realities facing small businesses – after all, Thatcher was brought up in a shop. But under Cameron and Osborne, they haven’t got a clue.
When I visited David Cameron’s constituency of Witney for a BBC Radio 4 programme, retailers told me they felt abandoned by Cameron. “He’s done absolutely nothing for us,” one told me.
Retail feeds off consumer confidence, and it doesn’t help that living standards are down and working people are, on average, £1,600 a year worse off than they were under Labour.
In contrast, Labour has made living standards a key policy battleground. And they were also the first party in this Parliament to recognise that business rates were holding business back. Ed Miliband was the first leader to commit to a cut in business rates. Now we need wholesale reform of this antiquated system.
Equally important is that Labour recognises businesses have to be embedded in our social fabric. They must be a part of our community rather than remote offshore entities avoiding tax here. That’s how you get trust on your balance sheet.
Under this Government we have seen the rich and the bankers who caused the crash in 2008 get richer, while the so-called economic recovery has been at the expense of the working and middle classes.
That is no way to build a sustainable economy or a healthy business environment.
There is a fairer way and that’s why I’ll be voting Labour on May 7.