Politicians don’t understand SMEs. Not really.

sme debate

Enterprise Nation hosted a small business hustings on Monday in the City of London with representatives from four of the major parties: Conservative, Green, Labour and Liberal Democrat. UKIP was extended an invitation but cancelled and didn’t send a replacement.

The party representatives were Minister for Enterprise and Energy Matthew Hancock MP and Labour’s Shadow Small Business Minister Toby Perkins MP, Liberal Democrat MP Lorely Burt and the Green small business spokesman, Solihull Cllr Howard Allen.

It was skilfully chaired by Emma Jones and, lasting only an hour, it was unlikely that we were going to get in depth consideration on any issue or, indeed, nuanced debate.

But it was really striking that the quality of the offerings and discussion from all attendees was disappointing especially when considering very small businesses, sole traders and part-time entrepreneurs.

The discussion was all very polite and serious but I didn’t come away with a wow about anyone or a whizz-bang revelation about a good idea that anyone proposed. And it wasn’t hard to set aside any party allegiances as they all pledged their earnest and heartfelt support for SMEs but didn’t really demonstrate it. (Regular readers of Tamebay will know that I am a Labour voter. Chris leans towards the Conservatives. It’s a good balance that works well. It also makes for vibrant discussions between us.)

And as I steamed back to the seaside from London on the train and considered my disquiet, I sort of realised why I found all their stalls to be unsatisfactory. Their notion of a small business is a bricks and mortar, High Street, Ltd. company, VAT-regged, traditional firm with a number of employees and shareholders.

Needless to say, that world view of business excludes the millions of one person bands and micro-businesses that make up a great chunk of the ecommerce world that I care about.

Despite their professed experiences as entrepreneurs, this was a group of professional politicians now. Divorced from the day to day operations, they had moved into a theoretical realm. The consideration of export opportunities and tax breaks for investors may as well have been, for me anyway, a discussion about space travel for all it spoke about every day SMEs.

If I were to make two proposals for a small business manifesto, I wouldn’t mention corporation tax or business rates (vital as those things are and ripe for review). And all the major party reps said on those two subjects at the hustings was tweakery anyway.

I’d suggest two measures: reduce VAT from 20% and seriously increase the personal tax allowances.

What would you suggest?