When you’re a smaller party I think it naturally gives you an understanding of what it feels like to be an underdog, and a passion to level the playing field.
For too long, small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) – independent traders, the self-employed, local businesses – have been neglected by the two bigger parties. Labour remains in hock to the trade unions; the Tories genuflect before big business. The liberal tradition is anti-monopoly, pro-competition and supports the promotion of fairness for all.
So which party will stand up for the UK’s 1.2 million small businesses? The plumber who gets up at the crack of dawn to do their accounts, the young entrepreneur filling in an application for a bank loan, the parent who does the school run before opening their store for the day?
As we enter the new parliament, I want Liberal Democrats to stand up loudly and clearly for small businesses. We should push for a third of government deals to go to SMEs over the next five years. That’s an estimated £15bn of government contracts straight to people who don’t have the weight of a global corporation behind them. I hope to put our weight as a party behind them.
The Liberal Democrat record over the last five years illustrates our passion to be the party for small businesses. For starters, there’s no denying the UK is seeing a skills shortage. Liberal Democrats in government responded by increasing the apprenticeships budget from £1.1bn in 2009/10 to £1.5bn in 2013/14, helping create 2.2 million apprenticeships.
In coalition, we worked to ensure SMEs could not be disadvantaged by bigger companies using their muscle to cut competition. With nearly half of the UK’s small businesses receiving payments late from companies they were supplying – on average being owed £30,000 – Lib Dems in government responded by making 30-day payment terms the standard and 60 days the new maximum limit. We toughened up the Prompt Payment Code, introduced the Groceries Code Adjudicator, and led by example from government – paying 80 per cent of central government invoices within five working days.
And we worked to help SMEs by cutting their taxes. The small profits corporation tax rate was cut to 20 per cent and the 100 per cent tax relief threshold for spending on plant and machinery was raised to £500,000. A £1,500 business rates discount alone is benefiting 300,000 shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants.
But the political landscape has changed. Europe is an issue that will reveal the Conservatives’ true colours. Out of every 10 small UK exporters, nine are trading within the European Union. Exiting the EU will see them face increased tariffs – this will have a negative impact on costs facing these firms and how many workers they can afford to keep on.
We must also ask why less than a third of entrepreneurs are women, how job centres are helping the disabled find work, why black and ethnic minority entrepreneurs have difficulty getting loans. It’s time for those who care about small businesses to make their voice heard.