Business, Brexit and the Ballot Box

Business, Brexit and the Ballot Box

On Monday 25 November, Chartered Accountants’ Hall played host to a General Election hustings on the topic of small business.  The event, organised by ICAEW in partnership with Enterprise Nation, Coadec, the Entrepreneurs’ Network and IPSE, saw five political heavyweights putting forward their party’s small business and economic policy priorities in front of an audience of 150 ICAEW members and small business owners. Panellists included:

  • The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss- International Trade Secretary (Conservative)
  • Bill Esterson- Shadow Small Business and International Trade Minister (Labour)
  • The Rt Hon Sir Edward Davey- Deputy Leader (Liberal Democrats)
  • Amelia Womack- Deputy Leader (the Green Party)
  • Hector Birchwood- Parliamentary candidate for Holborn and St Pancras (the Brexit Party)

The Issues

Panellists wrangled with contentious issues such as business rates, which the Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Brexit Party representatives say they would scrap in favour of a landowner tax if they were to win the race to Number 10 on December 12. In recent times, ICAEW has lobbied for a simpler and more equitable system of business taxation, which you can see here in our recent thought leadership piece “Business rates: maintain, demolish, rebuild or refurbish?”.

Other headline business concerns raised were IR35, with the Conservatives promising a review of self-employment regulations and voicing support for entrepreneurialism.

Finance was the focus of Labour’s election pledges, and Bill Esterson spoke about his party’s move to create a Business Investment Agency and a National Investment Bank which would help restore certainty and confidence to business.

The ‘B’ Word

Despite being focussed on small business, Brexit loomed large in the debate. The Liberal Democrats and the Green Party felt that the Referendum result in 2016 had sharpened the focus on EU immigration to the UK.  In an impassioned speech, Amelia Womack decried EU citizens in the UK being used as ‘bargaining chips’ in the negotiations, and alongside Sir Edward, said that her party would revoke Article 50 and keep the UK in the EU.

The Shadow Small Business Minister agreed, He deplored the idea of restrictions on numbers according to levels of pay, pointing out that small businesses depended on foreign workers. “There should be no arbitrary targets across the economy,” he said.

Ms Truss reiterated the Conservatives promise to “get Brexit done,” and spoke about the introduction of an Australian points-based immigration system for skilled workers.  Mr Birchwood of the Brexit Party echoed the need for greater controls on immigration and raised his hope that skilled people from across the globe would now be able to come and settle in the UK.

The Result

At the start of the evening, a poll of attendees revealed moderate support for the Liberal Democrats, with the pro-Remain party taking 39% of audience votes, just 3 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives. By the end of what was a highly contentious and lively discussion, however, voting intentions had changed significantly and the Lib Dems came out on top with 54% of the vote, and Labour and the Conservatives trailed behind with 11% and 21% respectively.

Over the course of the evening, both the Brexit and Green parties saw moderate gains in their share of the vote, with the former seeing an uplift from 2% to 4%  and the latter’s vote increasing from 2% to 11%.

In what has been an election fraught with ups and downs, what is clear is that the business community is looking for a Government that will provide stability and the right conditions for it to recover from the shock caused by the Referendum result.  As a public interest body, ICAEW is keen to see this stability replicated in whoever emerges as the winner on December 12.  For more information around ICAEW’s public policy objectives for the General Election, please see our ‘More than a Vote’ campaign.