Are Politicians Anti-Business?

Ed Miliband

The Sunday Times decided to devote half a dozen pages and an editorial lead last weekend to expose how business ‘unfriendly’ Ed Miliband and the Labour Party is. And, despite the mindless repetition among the thousands of words written to prove its point, there is no doubt that the narrative being used by the official opposition does not lend itself to one drawing the conclusion that the private sector has the full confidence and support of Labour’s leadership.

Indeed, though Shadow Business Minister Chuka Umunna has been at pains to point out that it is tax dodgers, unscrupulous bankers and poor employers that Labour has a problem with, the consistent and constant attack on ‘the private sector’ has led many to conclude that Ed actually is ‘red’ and he would lead a government determined to strangle enterprise and wealth creation.

But, just as there appeared to be an open goal for David Cameron to knock the ball into, and prove the Tory Party’s business – friendly credentials, the Prime Minister decided to shoot himself in the foot by telling bosses it was time they gave their employees a pay rise!

The problem with the rhetoric from both Labour and Conservative’s at the moment is the generality with which they speak – and the obsession with the negative.

For all the talk of ‘economic recovery’ it is a fact that many small businesses are still facing challenging times, and that far from being in a position to increase pay, they worry about being able to keep the staff they have.

The fragile recovery has not allowed business to increase their prices to customers, so where is the additional cash for wage hikes to come from?

The failure to distinguish between ‘big’ business and the vast majority of UK companies who are ‘SME’s’ is starting to grate with many business owners and entrepreneurs.

Have our political leaders thanked all those businessmen and women for fighting through tough times, keeping on staff and surviving by taking a pay cut themselves? Has the Prime Minister called on the treasury to give small bosses a break and be less aggressive when it comes to collecting VAT or corporation tax (no sweetener deals for the small or medium sized company I’m afraid), or indeed have Ministers been exploring how UK Plc can take the pressure off a business owner by actually meeting a promise they all make pre -election – and genuinely cut red tape and bureaucracy?

There is no doubt that unscrupulous employers, illegal tax dodgers and financiers on the fiddle should be held to account and punished. However, they are a very small minority of what makes up the business community of the UK, and it is time for politicians from all sides to start to acknowledge the hard work, honesty and contribution that the vast majority of business owners make to the well -being of the country.

The Footy

And so it came to pass that another bonanza football deal has been brokered, with a sum in the region of £5Billion being paid by a diverse range of media outlets for the TV rights to Premier League football. As I wrote last week here we will be witnessing a fixture programme that will stretch throughout the week, and I do believe this is the beginning of the end for the game.

Dopes like me who have an addiction to a football club, rather than the game itself, will probably continue to moan and groan, but like a chain smoker that has been threatening to pack in the fags for years, will find it almost impossible to ‘give up’ something that is no longer interested in the supporter. However, kids, the next generation of fans, will see football as a TV series, and they are likely start to choose to support teams randomly, depending on results. They certainly won’t be stupid enough to brave a cold, dark Wednesday night to watch Stoke battle out a mid- table fixture against West Ham!

If grass roots football was to benefit, or indeed prices for tickets were to be slashed, there may be something to celebrate. But the additional cash will simply go into the pockets of overpaid footballers, their agents and football ‘administrators’.

To those at the top of the game at the moment of course, this is an irrelevance. ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ should be the FA’s new motto, and one they could inherit from the banking community who had such an attitude during the financial boom – and look what happened to them!

More Evidence That the North-South Divide is Growing

North South Divide

There was little surprise with the news this week that for every one job created in the North since 2004, twelve have been created in the South, according to a Centre for Cities report that is summarised here.

The fact that this latest study covers the past decade also shows that neither the previous Labour government, with its push towards regionalism, nor the current coalition administration, have been able to reverse what is an unhealthy and unacceptable trend that has been part of the UK economic landscape for generations now.

The devolution programme that George Osborne has been driving through his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ initiative has not, of course, had a chance to prove whether it will be the key to finally solve this long-standing conundrum, but if the regions and cities across the north grasp the opportunities he is offering, then I have no doubt that more strategic planning and spending on transport, skills, training and economic development at a local level will contribute to a growth in city region jobs and wealth.

However, more radical proposals are necessary too, not least identifying new ways of supporting existing businesses, and as importantly encouraging start up’s.

The Northwest and Yorkshire is still way short of where it needs to be in terms of VAT registered businesses, and the ‘enterprise culture’ that successive governments have attempted to establish has not been delivered.

There are still too many public sector led ‘business support’ projects – I still shake my head in disbelief when I hear local government officers who wouldn’t know a balance sheet from the back end of a bus waxing lyrical about what business needs – and a range of financial incentives in place that actually favour larger companies who would have ample access to finance in the mainstream market anyway. The Regional Growth Fund is the most obvious culprit, but it is not on its own.

Our man in Manchester Michael Taylor has restated Downtown’s belief that we need a regional investment bank in his blog here and it would certainly be on the menu of change that is required if we are not to be talking about an even bigger North-South gap in 2025.

But a much bigger infrastructure spend than Osborne has announced, with house building and improving the regions motorway network at the centre of the plan; a drive within city regions to focus at least as much attention on growing our own talent as we do on inward investment; and a new range of genuine financial incentives for small companies who have ambitions to grow, with tax credits for those who take on more staff are just a few possibilities to be considered.

As we approach the General Election in May, Downtown will be agitating for change and suggesting as many new ideas as we can. Join the conversation and let me know what you think could begin to close the North-South economic gap.

The Big Partnership

Big Partnership

There has been much talk in recent weeks from government ministers, shadow ministers and political commentators about the creation of a Northern ‘super city.’

Evan Davies presented this solution to the growing North – South divide in his two part documentary ‘Mind the Gap’ earlier this year, and it is something that has been picked up by the chancellor George Osborne and Labour’s Lord Adonis who has the brain the size of the planet, in recent policy papers.

There is no suggestion that there should be any administrative governance arrangements for the whole of the region at this point; but clearly there has been a warming towards the establishment of city region or metro mayors. Scotland’s continued drive for devolved powers has no doubt impacted on the latest Westminster thinking.

But equally there has been a recognition that there is no sense in talking about bridging the economic gap between London and the rest of the UK unless you recognise the need for huge investment in big infrastructure projects north of the Watford gap, and that one of the essential ingredients for this to work is the need for the big northern cities to work in a more co-ordinated and cohesive way if those schemes are to be delivered effectively.

Business leaders are sceptical about the ability of politicians to put aside long standing city rivalries and parochialisms in order to create this new panacea. However, evidence on the ground is that there is genuine and positive dialogue taking place between Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.

This week Leeds chief executive Tom Riordan tweeted; ‘Very good meeting with Sir Howard Bernstein aligning Leeds & Manchester plans on HS2 and HS3. Transpennine working stronger than I have ever seen.’

Meanwhile, the chief executive of Liverpool Vision Max Steinberg announced last week that Liverpool and Manchester will be sharing a stand at MIPIM UK in October.

Conversations are leading to tangible actions and outcomes, and the ‘One North’ document that is due to be released on 5th August will further accelerate the process of the North working together in a far more collaborative fashion.

All of this is great news for the region, for the economy and for business. It is an agenda Downtown has been promoting for ten years. It is an agenda the North’s private sector should be vociferously welcoming and supporting.

Beware of over the top ‘spin’

over the top spin

Liverpool has enjoyed a fabulous seven weeks in the sun as the city has played host to the International Festival for Business. So successful have we been in the execution of what was a challenging gig, the government have announced that they will let us do it all over again in 2016. The ambition now, rightly, is that this will become a biennial event and IFB18, 20, 22, and so on will all be held here.

On the back of a ten year regeneration and renaissance that has included the total transformation of our world famous waterfront; the European Capital of Culture celebrations; the Liverpool One development; the establishment of a first class arena; a myriad of new, quality hotels; the Super Port; the giants and let us not forget, the return to Europe of our two Premier League football clubs, and it is absolutely right that Liverpudlians should be encouraged, confident and have a bit of a swagger.

However, a strong word of warning against this extremely positive backdrop. The city is at the start of a comeback journey – nowhere near at its end. The narrative we should embrace ought to be one of aspiration and ambition. We are aiming to build on recent successes after a generation of struggle. We want to be taken seriously on the national and international stage again and regain our reputation as a smart city that you can do business with. We want to attract more people – many, many more people to work, play and most importantly live here.

We are not, however, as some of the more over excited ambassadors for Liverpool have been increasingly claiming in recent weeks to delegates from all across the globe, the ‘best city in the world’. In fact, we are not even in the top 100!

A  city that has a much higher number of unemployed people than the national average, a startlingly low rate of business start-up’s, and a worrying skills shortage cannot and should not claim to be the best in the world.

Does the hyperbole matter? Well, in my opinion, yes it does. The biggest asset of any business, and of any city, is knowing your strengths, knowing your weaknesses, and being able to engage with potential investors in an honest and open manner that will get them to take you seriously.

Standing up and saying ‘welcome to the best city in the world’ may impress the indigenous business community, though my guess is not that many of them. To an international audience it is at best a bit of a joke; at worst over the top, unnecessary hype.

Liverpool has a huge amount to shout about. We should do that in an effective, consistent and realistic fashion – then we can continue the momentum and fantastic success that we have enjoyed during the past decade, carry on tackling the very real and serious challenges that we still face; and one day, maybe one day, actually be able to stand up and say ‘Liverpool is the best city in the world’ and be taken seriously.

Who is ‘Everyone’?


I am sure I am not the only business owner who gets feedback from colleagues and clients alike that starts with the immortal word ‘everyone’!

‘Everyone’ said that event was great; ‘everyone’ thinks we are wrong about that particular issue; ‘everyone’ is complaining that we haven’t delivered a date with Beyonce for them; ‘everyone’ thinks David Moyes is doing a great job at Manchester United.

It takes little probing to realise that ‘everyone’ is the last person they spoke to, or the author of the last tweet they read. But in an age where we increasingly get our news from Twitter and other social media networks, and conversation and considered opinion is becoming a lost art, ‘everyone’ is having a much bigger influence on everyone’s thinking than ‘everyone’ should.

A snap on line poll of a hardly watched debate between the UKIP lummox Nigel Farrage and the increasingly irrelevant Nick Clegg had many people declaring this week that ‘everyone’ thinks the UK should pull out of Europe. At an event I took part in on Thursday morning about the International Festival for Business I was told that ‘everyone’ thinks it is an event that will be a damp squib. In my office last week one of my team told me that ‘everyone’ thinks that Downtown should stop hosting sexy networking evenings.

It is all nonsense of course. The overuse of ‘everyone’ has infiltrated everyone’s vocabulary and we need to challenge and push back when someone’s evidence is ‘everyone’.

I hope everyone who is reading this agrees with me, and vows to abandon using the phrase ‘everyone’ in the future.

A blog dedicated to a number of Downtown staff – you know who you are