THE BLOG

It's Much Harder to Set Up a Successful Small Business Than Become a Politician

27/02/2014 09:34 GMT | Updated 28/04/2014 10:59 BST

It's not easy getting elected to Parliament. It takes a lot of time, involves huge sacrifices and can be particularly unpleasant. In my case I received death threats - I had a three-foot funeral wreath sent to my office and was told if I didn't withdraw from the parliamentary selection process my body parts would be found spread across the M62 motorway. Then there was a three year battle with the Liberal Democrats, an exhausting campaign that involved knocking on thousands of doors and the debacle with Gordon Brown turning up just before the election and calling my constituent Gillian Duffy a bigot.

But as perilous as my journey - and that of many other candidates - was to become an MP, it's nothing compared to the struggle faced everyday by thousands and thousands of people running small businesses. As someone who's had experience of both - I co-founded a research and communications agency - I'm left in no doubt: running a small business is a lot harder than becoming a politician.

Facing up to this realization would be a healthy first step for politicians if we're going to confront the elephant in the room where the growth debate is concerned. Achieving a successful economy is inextricably linked to businesses being started and successfully growing. Yet far too few in politics have any real experience of starting a business.

Look at the lack of start-up business experience in the cabinet or even frontbench; look at the lack of start-up business experience in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Lib Dems. The truth is that politicians don't generally know what it's like to start a business, what makes businesses work, or what makes them fail. They usually ask one of the four large accountancy firms to tell them about SMEs, or ask special advisors or think tanks how smaller businesses work and what policies would suit them.

This results in weak and remote policy. I regularly run small business surgeries in my constituency and one of the first things entrepreneurs say to me when I ask them what they think of the Government is 'they have not got a clue about the realities facing business'. Whether its business rates, access to finance or the failure to develop key skills in school, there is a strong feeling that ministers are not on their side and are utterly divorced from the realities they face.

Then there's the perception that politicians don't really value small businesses and see them as cash cows that can be milked on a regular basis. The reality is that smaller businesses, and obviously some big ones, are extremely fragile. A dramatic business rates increase, a non-paying or late paying customer, an unreliable supplier, or a bank that's exploiting them can close them down. It doesn't take much.

My own experience underlines this. I used savings to get the business started and when it fell into difficulties I had to remortgage the family home to prop it up until we got it back on its feet. We had to lay people off and the banks gave us the runaround. It was far more stressful than standing for Parliament.

What worries me is that across the political spectrum now, there is a sense of remoteness from small business realities. George Osborne and David Cameron are only interested in big business and its little wonder that backbenchers like David Davis bemoan the Government's obsession with "crony capitalism". On the left there is sometimes an unhealthy suspicion with all business driven by the belief that it's exploitative.

I'll admit, I once shared this view but when I had a go at setting up a business I quickly learnt the effort business people put in, not just so that they can make a decent living - though many don't - but also because they want to help and support the people they employ. There are many business people I know who go to bed worrying about paying their employees' mortgages.

If we're going to deliver a fairer Britain the challenge facing all politicians is how to build a bigger economy. Progressive policies usually come with a price tag and by building a thriving small business base we'll be able to afford more of them. But until there's more understanding on the part of politicians how small businesses work then I fear the country will continue to punch below its weight.

Today the Commons will debate diversity in Parliament. We all know an effective democracy is one that represents all walks of life. Small businessmen and women are the lifeblood of every community. But there are far too few of them in politics. I'm pleased the Labour Party has set up a 'special stream' to encourage more business people to become MPs. But there's a lot more to be done to open up politics to the biggest job creators in our country.