Baroness Jan Royall, the leader of the opposition in the House of Lords, emailed me recently asking whether I could come and join her for a five minute chat. When the leader summons you, you are prepared for the worst, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Jan asked me whether I’d like to take on a front bench position shadowing the government’s BIS department.
I asked whether I could consider it over the weekend , but in truth my mind was made up in two nanoseconds.
For nearly 40 years I had been in the information technology industry, most of it as a serial entrepreneur. I had created, developed and eventually sold three international IT service companies. I know what it’s like to build a company from a couple of people sitting round a table to eventually becoming a global player. My expertise comes from the coal face (well not quite the coal face!).
I was ennobled in 2000. If you are an ex-MP or have been involved in any form of politics beforehand fitting into the House of Lords is seamless, but if you come from a non-political background it’s tough. I’ve been there over 12 years and now I really know the place well, though I must admit I struggle remembering the names of Cameron’s recent intake.
So why did I take this job as shadow business minister? Not for the salary – there isn’t any. And not for the power – in opposition you are impotent. And certainly not for ambition – I am way too old for that. I took it because I really do have something to say on a subject I know very well.
My brief is SMEs and my boss is Chuck Umanna – he is less than half my age, but he is terrific and knows his subject. I am looking forward to working with him and the shadow BIS team.
You have only to look at the statistics to see that unemployment in the UK comes from job reductions in the large company sector and from the public sector, whereas small and medium companies are more than holding their own. You only have to look at exports to also see that SMEs are doing well and its the large company sector that is struggling. In a depressed economy it is the SMEs who are nimble and stepping up to the challenge. But we should be doing more to encourage them.
I refuse to accept that Labour should be anything other than the party of business – we mustn’t let the Tories claim business as their sole preserve. It is SMEs that will lead the recovery and it is SMEs which will provide new employment – my brief will be to contribute to the front bench BIS team’s thinking and policy making as well as to hold the government to account.
Just a word about the banks. I speak to many SMEs and despite quantitative easing and despite all the programmes this coalition government have announced, precious little finance is getting through from the banks to the SMEs. There are many companies out there who have battled through this recession, cut costs, restructured their business models and are now well on the way to recovery. They have done everything right in an economic crisis they did not create, but the banks still treat them like lepers.
The banks failed. The nation bailed them out. It’s their job to perform and we should be holding their feet to the fire.
Parry Mitchell is a entrepreneur, member of the House of Lords and the newest addition to the shadow BIS team