Speech: Manchester Business Awards

Chuka Umunna MP spoke on 29 March at the Manchester Business Awards:

Introduction

Thank you for that introduction, and thanks for inviting me to share in this fantastic occasion.

This is the last stop in my tour of different parts of the country this week – meeting the best of British business, finding out how we can help you prosper and grow.

Yesterday morning I visited the Glenmorangie whisky bottling plant in Livingston; in the afternoon I went to one of our leading pharmaceutical firms in Edinburgh, before addressing you at this glamorous gathering this evening.

It is great to be back here in Manchester. Though I grew up in my constituency in South London, I do consider Manchester to be my home away from home. I have strong ties here, I read law at the University of Manchester for 4 years and, in so doing, got stuck in to numerous curries at ridiculous times in the morning in Rusholme.

Of course, a lot has changed since then. When I started university in the mid 90s, there was no Google, no Facebook – Mark Zuckerburg was just 13 – and there was no twitter. Labour was winning elections as frequently as United were winning trophies; the Tories were changing party leaders more quickly than City changed its managers.

Fast forward to now and Google is said to be worth more than 30 times the value of Man U, Zuckerberg is about to make billions of dollars from the floatation of Facebook, millions are tweeting – including politicians who have learnt a single tweet can be a joy but also end your career ….and City might even win the league this year.

I was a student back then and now I find myself shadowing Vince Cable. Yes, he is twice my age and we do look a bit different, but the funny thing is that in his lifetime Vince has been a member of the Labour Party for longer than me….he’s just fallen in with the wrong crowd since then.

And the economic context is of course entirely different. The mid 1990s marked the start of a period of prolonged growth. Tonight, we arrive at these Business Awards having seen no growth over the last 5 quarters, unemployment soaring beyond 2.6 million and 50 businesses going under every day.

So, though we should always celebrate business success, your success in 2012 deserves even greater recognition and praise during these tough economic times, with all the uncertainties it entails.

I am aware this event would not have been possible without the support of tonight’s sponsors: Lombard, the award winning providers of asset finance to business; and, of course, Manchester City Council. And I want to pay tribute to your council leadership – your Leader, Sir Richard Leese and the Chief Executive, Sir Howard Bernstein.

I don’t want to go on for long but I want to say a little about what you are doing here in Manchester and its national significance, the long term challenges we face as a country and a bit about our future.

Active government in the North West

Here the work your Council is doing with the other local authorities in this Greater Manchester region to create a thriving business environment is fantastic. Ten authorities – all working together across party lines to promote growth in this region. At Westminster, my team and I have a constitutional duty to hold the government to account for all its actions – but where we can work together in your interests, we should do so, and that is precisely what Sir Richard and my Labour colleagues are doing in this part of the country.

This level of cooperation – moulded, tested and strengthened over a couple of decades of joint working here in Manchester – is a shining example to other city regions of the benefits of working around shared goals. Here this partnership has led to the Greater Manchester Growth Plan, authored by an impressive group of economic advisers chaired by Jim O’Neill from Goldman Sachs. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I recommend that you take a moment to do so. It is full of ideas about the role that local government – working together – can play in fostering growth in the region: improving local infrastructure, housing and skills; using public money more strategically; and, making Manchester a hub for science and innovation.

Short term economic challenges

I mention the leadership being shown by local authorities in Manchester because this approach is at the core of Labour’s vision for the UK economy.

I have already referred to the immediate, short term economic problems we have – caused by the government’s comprehensive spending review which massively dented confidence, causing a huge drop in demand from October 2010. It is for this reason that, like the Federation of Small Businesses, we have been arguing for all micro businesses taking on extra employees to be given a national insurance break. It why, like the CBI, we have argued for infrastructure investment to be brought forward in our plan for jobs and growth – to kick start the recovery and get people back into work, which is the surest way to reduce public sector borrowing.

But we have bigger long term challenges too which require the modernisation and reform of our economy. We have seen a stagnation in average wages despite productivity increases; there are imbalances between and within regions; we have become over reliant on one sector – financial services – and need to grow others as a percentage of GDP. Let me be clear:

I am proud that we have a financial services sector which is leading the world, serving the global economy, and behind much of our success in other key business services. But what we need, and what you tell me you want is a financial services sector that better serves you and the domestic real economy. That’s why we are looking very seriously at plans for a British Investment Bank; that’s why we have been looking at how we can learn from what the US Small Business Administration is doing in that country to increase access to finance for businesses in this one.

In short – what we need is a new economy, fit for purpose, fit for our times, fit for the future. That has to be our goal.

Active government nationally working with business

We disagree on the Government’s core economic strategy. But we do agree that, to the extent growth returns, it must be private sector driven. So we are asking a lot from you – the country is asking a lot from you in difficult circumstances. In meeting this task, I am firmly of the view that you deserve nothing other than government’s full support. Not easy warm words. Not a government that steps back, but a government that steps up.

What I am talking about is a new partnership between productive business and active government: productive business creating long term, sustainable value; active government using every tool that it has in a consistent and coordinated way, offering you the certainty to invest with confidence. Some might call this an active industrial strategy for 2012 and beyond – I am intensely relaxed with this description.

We started to develop an active government approach under Peter Mandelson towards the end of our time in government. People sometimes forget that an additional 1.1 million new businesses were created during our time in office and that by the time we left, the World Bank ranked the UK the best country in Europe for “ease of doing business”, and fourth best in the world, ahead of the U.S.

However, clearly we did not get everything right – at the 2010 General Election it was clear to me that we had lost your trust having worked so hard to gain it following Tony Blair’s election as our leader and we must have the humility to say so. I am absolutely determined that we regain your trust.

I am proud to be able to say that we have a Shadow Business Team in the House of Commons entirely composed of people who have either set up and run their own businesses, or who have worked for businesses. And my goal in leading Labour’s business team is this: that you see within the Labour Party the same ambition for the success of your businesses as you have; that you see Labour, again, as the champion of productive business, the natural party of the entrepreneur and the innovator. The party with the best ideas and the most realistic plans for the UK economy, trusted to deliver rising and shared prosperity. No party has a monopoly on this but we should aspire to be the best – a strong voice for you in Opposition and hopefully in Government. To do this we must listen to you – as I have done today with the businesses I had the pleasure of meeting earlier at EV, the fund management company on King Street.

Paying our way in the world – the long term global challenge

Why? Because the prize is big. Some people look at the rise of emerging economies – like China, India and Brazil – with trepidation. They fear that growing competition in global markets will mean our best days are behind us. I could not disagree more – having seen the dynamism, creativity and drive in British business today, I say to the doom merchants: don’t tell me our businesses don’t have the ability to compete and be the best in the world.

In the next two decades, the global middle class will triple in size to 5 billion. That’s a whole lot of demand we should be preparing our economy and our businesses to meet. Investing, training, innovating. And I know that working with you we can do this.

You are the ones that will lead our rise. You have the ideas. You have shown that you are up to the challenge. In turn, you need a government that will take the strategic action needed to make sure that the whole economy matches up to your success. That is our commitment to you. Just look at what Sir Richard and colleagues are doing here locally and that gives you a flavour of the approach we would adopt if we were in power nationally.

Conclusion

Whether you are up for an award this evening, or will be trying harder to win one next year; whether you are the best newcomer, the best green company, the best creative company, the best law firm or the best social enterprise – you are our hope, and you are our future. I congratulate you on your success this evening, and I wish you the best of luck and continued success in the future.

Thank you for listening.