The Scottish Election is in full swing; well as much of a swing as can be generated when everyone thinks they know the outcome. Some have described it as a lacklustre campaign season; others have asked what campaign?
So it is with a modicum of interest I went along to the Scottish Grocers Federation ‘Big Debate’ last Thursday night. If things were as somnambulant as claimed I could at least doze off in the back. But who knows, I might even learn something.
Chaired by Gary Robertson (BBC Good Morning Scotland), the panel comprised:
- John Swinney (SNP)
- Murdo Fraser (C0n)
- Jeremy Purvis (LibDem)
- Daniel Johnson (Lab)
- Peter McColl (Greens)
Other politicians are no doubt available in your constituencies.
Kudos to the SGF for arranging this and for the politicians and the audience of SGF members for turning up. Retailing has had short shrift in most elections and despite the sector’s size and impact on lives, often gets overlooked and ignored.
The Chair began by asking a question on tax and we never really got off this topic for much of the night. Initial exchanges were all about personal tax rates and 1p up and down etc. It took an intervention from Abdul Majid to get the panel to focus on tax issues as they apply to small retailers.
Amazon were pilloried for their tax and other practices as were governments who either supported or were too lenient on them and other ‘tax avoiders’. The rates issues were tossed around via small business bonus scheme and the review/revaluation underway/promised. The Living Wage/National Minimum Wage came in for some stick from the audience (James Lowman and Mo Razzaq, in particular), though the panel were wholly supportive. The Sugar Tax got an airing, as did the proposed Deposit Return Scheme.
Possibly the most pertinent intervention of the night came from Pete Cheema who asked whether politicians actually understood the realities of running small businesses? This allowed the panel to polish off their job history – some with more success than others – and to show their empathic sides. But, do they really get it?
A couple of personal reflections on the issues of the night:
- All the politicians did a good job of claiming to show empathy and understanding. But Pete Cheema did skewer them on the cumulative effect of all this on small business’ ability to survive. The panel were often in close agreement on the benefits of the individual taxes – DRS (Greens in the vanguard, unsurprisingly), Living Wage plus, auto enrolment, sugar tax and so on. All defended these as positive things – and they could be – but what is the cumulative effect of all these on a small shopkeeper? And how do we mitigate such impacts, yet get the benefits? As Mo Razzaq said, retailers will cut staff hours, staff and eventually close stores.
- The rates issues continue to worry me. We seem to be saying that the rates system is broken and that the valuations are too old and too wrong. But then most seem to say that we can fix this by a new valuation etc. For me, this seems folly. The system is broken and running the same system again is not a way to fix it. Can we please have a complete rethink and stop the madness? Why don’t we simply exempt small businesses completely or have rate free zones? If we want to support small retailers let’s do it and not have a pay/claim/rebate fandango all the time. We need simplicity and clarity aligned to policy direction on businesses and places. And retail as a whole needs its rates and taxation burden rethought (except for those who are avoiding them of course).
So, despite the claimed snooze factor for the Scottish election, the night was interesting. I think the message about cumulative impact did resonate with the politicians, but any solutions at this point remain unclear.
And in reality, we did get off tax once, when the issue of retail crime and protected status for shop-workers or consumer facing staff was raised. This was a suitable reminder that for all the knockabout nonsense in politics, politicians do have the potential to change lives and possibly behaviour and many are in it to make a difference. The election is about holding them to account for whether they have or could succeed.
5th May – as the saying goes “vote early and often”.
SGF Manifesto is at www.scottishshop.org.uk
My tweets from the night can be found via #sgfbigdebate.