Trading is ‘near impossible’: The small business owners torn on how to vote

As the General Election draws near, both major parties will hope to have done enough to woo a key set of voters: small business owners.

The UK has an estimated 5.5 million small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs), and many of their votes are still thought to be up for grabs.

Last week, a poll by insurer Simply Business suggested four in five of them could still be swayed if they thought their interests were being prioritised.

The Conservatives have long positioned themselves as the natural party for entrepreneurs, but soaring inflation, the cost-of-living crisis and adverse effects of Brexit have risked souring the relationship.

In turn, Labour has tried to grab the initiative, promising to reform business rates, cut down on late payments and commit to a new industrial strategy, in a broad-based appeal to SMEs.

With just days until the country goes to the polls, the PA news agency spoke to five small business owners to see which issues are most important to them – and what could yet sway their vote.

– Emma Robson, hamper retailer, Essex

Emma Robson runs Stort Valley Gifting, employing a handful of people to assemble personalised hampers to sell to companies. The packages often include bottles of gin, high-end olive oil, locally sourced honey and personalised chocolate bars.

Skyrocketing inflation in recent years has forced her suppliers to hike prices, subsequently pushing up what Ms Robson charges for hampers.

She is worried that it will get to the point where her customers “can’t afford to do it anymore”.

Woman holding a bottle of gin
Hamper retailer Emma Robson has previously voted Tory, but says she is considering voting Labour this election (Emma Robson/PA)

For Ms Robson, business rates is a key issue. The tax, which applies to non-residential property such as pubs, factories, shops and offices, has been criticised for unfairly punishing companies that trade in-person versus online.

She says she moved her company to an industrial unit outside of her local town, Harlow, to try to accommodate more space, but feels she is still paying too much.

“If we wanted to move again, we just couldn’t because we can’t afford the rates,” she says. “It’s a barrier to growth for us.”

She is encouraged by Labour’s pledge to reform the tax, but less so about the lack of detail on how it will do it. “If you’re going to vote for policies like that, you need to look at how it’s going to impact you.”

Ms Robson has previously voted Conservative, but that could be about to change. She says: “Now, I’m at the point where I’m actually thinking: ‘Do I vote Labour?’”

“I’m torn between the two.”

– Robert Wicks, brewer, Kent

“I’d like to see the major parties stop being in awe of large corporations,” says Robert Wicks, managing director of Westerham Brewery, a real ale brewer near Sevenoaks which employs about 30 people at peak times.

Mr Wicks has been in business since 2004. Since then, large brewers’ growing dominance of the UK market – through undercutting competition and buying up independents – has made trading “near impossible” for some smaller competitors, he says.

A close-up of a man drinking a pint
Brewers have been hit hard by Covid and the cost-of-living crisis (Johnny Green/PA)

Brewers were at the sharp end of the pandemic, with pubs closing for months at a time during lockdowns. Now, they are struggling through a cost-of-living crisis that has depressed sales.

The number of breweries that went bust last year jumped 82% versus 2022, according to auditors Mazars.

Mr Wicks questions whether the Conservatives have lived up to their billing as the “natural party of small business”.

“But then you’ve got Rachel Reeves (Labour’s shadow chancellor) going around trying to get big business on-side,” he says. “Here’s an idea: how about meeting with independent brewers and listening?”

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves in a supermarket
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

He says Reform UK’s manifesto, dubbed a contract by the party, has the most encouraging “general tone” for SMEs.

But many of the policies – which include lifting thresholds on VAT and corporation tax – are “aspirational rather than anything that’s going to be enacted”, he adds.

Mr Wicks said he wants to see competition regulators given “more teeth” to deal with big companies, and that beer duty – currently at about £21 per litre of alcohol – needs to come down.

“I’m p***** off with the Tories and I don’t want the Government any longer,” he says. “But I really fear what is coming in their place.”

Wasim Riley, restaurateur, Manchester

Wasim Riley and his partner run Afrikana, a restaurant business based in Manchester that employs about 20 people.

He says the hospitality sector has been “highly neglected” compared with other industries in the last few years.

Restaurateur Wasim Riley wants the next government to speak to small businesses more frequently (Wasim Riley/PA)
Restaurateur Wasim Riley wants the next government to speak to small businesses more frequently (Wasim Riley/PA)

“We can’t afford to pay our staff, we’re just about hitting our margins and there’s not enough people coming through the doors,” Mr Riley says.

He adds that rising costs and depressed demand due to the cost-of-living crisis have “not been directly dealt with and this makes us more vulnerable to political changes”.

Mr Riley says a reduction in the rate of VAT would be welcome, but that he does not believe the Conservatives would help the hospitality industry if re-elected.

He added: “The only helpful measure to date has been the 75% discount on council tax rates, but our industry requires us to be in prime locations, which comes with high costs. The discount should be a given, not a benefit.”

Mr Riley is swinging towards Labour, having previously voted Tory, and wants to see the next government communicate better with SME owners.

He said: “They won’t know what is needed if they don’t speak to business owners more frequently.”

– Vivienne Brown, florist, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Vivienne Brown has run 5th Avenue Flowers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for 35 years. The business supplies floristry for hotels, restaurants and offices. She voted Conservative at the last election.

She says business has suffered from companies working from home since the pandemic, which has depleted the office segment of her trade.

That, combined with increases in the minimum wage, has prompted her to downsize the business from nine people to just three full-time workers.

“We’re having to work a hell of a lot harder,” she says. “When people leave we can’t afford to replace them.”

However, Ms Brown says she will vote Tory again, pointing to Covid-19 business relief measures such as the furlough and small business loans schemes as reasons to trust the party.

General Election campaign 2024
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on a visit to a farm shop (Aaron Chown/PA)

“They saved a hell of a lot of businesses with their actions,” she says. “You can’t blame the Government for the pandemic.”

But despite Labour’s promises for small businesses, Ms Brown says she is too sceptical of the party to vote for them.

“There’s no conviction in the things (Sir Keir) says… I can remember trying to run my business 14 years ago and it was really hard then,” she says, referring to the end of the last Labour government.

“With (Sir Keir) I think it’ll be more of the same.”

– Mark Brearley, tray manufacturer, London

Mark Brearley runs Kaymet, a manufacturer of high-end serving trays and trolleys. Stockists include Harrods and Selfridges, but he exports to dozens of countries across Europe, the Americas and Asia.

“Brexit is the wound that keeps on bleeding,” he says. “It’s not gone away, it’s not just teething problems,” he says.

Manufacturer Mark Brearley says he is ‘desperate for a more positive spirit’ (Carmel King/PA)
Manufacturer Mark Brearley says he is ‘desperate for a more positive spirit’ (Carmel King/PA)

Mr Brearley says the cost of importing materials has gone up, while he also relies on trade shows – often in Europe – for winning new business.

“If you’re a small business, you drive the van yourself. But then you suddenly find you’ve lost a day trying to get out of the country – it’s all just preposterously complex and bureaucratic,” he says.

“Things have just fundamentally all got harder in an infuriating day-to-day grief-and-cost kind of way.”

Mr Brearley also points to an incident in 2018, when former prime minister Boris Johnson reportedly said “f*** business” when questioned about concerns over a no-deal Brexit.

“When you’re already feeling sensitive to the world of politics, that sort of thing doesn’t go away,” he says.

Mr Brearley says he will vote Labour at this election, and is encouraged by the party’s commitment to a new “industrial strategy” which has a focus on procurement and trade policy, and also mentions manufacturers.

“That’s such a blindingly obvious thing for a government to do,” he says. “But it’s also gone beyond party political things, I’m just desperate for a more positive spirit.”