Business development · 29 November 2016

Chuka Umunna exclusive: Small Business Saturday 2016 is about companies, not politicians

Umunna believes Small Business Saturday can be taken even further
Chuka Ummuna: “We need to do all we can via the tax system to encourage businesses to invest”

In an exclusive interview, Chuka Umunna, the MP for Streatham, former shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, and one-time contender for leader of the Labour Party, spoke to Business Advice about Small Business Saturday 2016 ­– a successful grassroots campaign at the forefront of small business in the UK.

We joined him at a coffee shop in his constituency of Streatham, a pit stop on the Small Business Saturday 2016 campaign tour, to chat about why he’s so passionate about it and where he thinks it could one day go.

In four short years, Small Business Saturday has cemented itself as one of the most important dates in the small business calendar, promoting innovative new British firms and encouraging consumers to “shop local” to support businesses in their communities.

Falling on the first Saturday in December annually, last year’s campaign saw an unprecedented level of interest. Shoppers spent £623m with small businesses up and down the country on the day itself – a 24 per cent increase on the amount spent in 2014 – while more than three quarters of the UK’s local councils chose to back the initiative throughout the year.

In addition, last year’s Small Business Saturday received unrivalled support online. With over 100,000 Tweets sent, reaching over 25m people worldwide, #SmallBizSatUK trended at number one on Twitter all day on 5 December 2015.

Ahead of Small Business Saturday 2016, Chuka Umunna traces its origins

The Small Business Saturday 2016 campaign is set to be no different. Falling on 3 December, Small Business Saturday 2016 will seek to showcase more exciting local businesses in towns and cities around Britain.

Although popular amongst policy makers of all political persuasions, it has been Labour’s Umunna who has thrown his weight behind Small Business Saturday in the UK from the get-go.

“It’s always resolutely been a non-partisan, cross-party campaign we’ve sought to get everyone involved with,” he told Business Advice over coffee at Batch & Co, a small, independent shop in his Streatham constituency.

“When we launched here in the UK, I personally ensured Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary at the time, and the Conservative prime minister, were on board. But it’s not about the politicians, it’s about the businesses.”

Having experienced the success of the initiative in promoting enterprise first-hand in the US five years ago, Umunna has worked tirelessly to apply the same winning formula here in the UK.

Coordinating between the campaign’s US founders and original financial backers American Express, as well as promoting the idea heavily in parliament, Umunna has been Small Business Saturday UK’s champion, providing the platform that’s made it a nationally recognised initiative in just a few years.

Umunna has a clear vision for the campaign, founded on three governing principles, the first of which being that it should be non-partisan. “This is something the last Conservative government struggled with,” he revealed. “Maybe it was because I was the instigator of the campaign, but they saw it very much as a political thing.”

Secondly, Umunna emphasised the non-corporate aspect of Small Business Saturday, suggesting that removing big business from the equation had been key to the initiative’s success so far.

And finally, that the campaign’s deliberate “bottom-up” approach to small business growth avoids the likelihood of it bending to political influence. “This isn’t something that should be managed at the top level in Westminster and Whitehall, it’s a grass roots initiative,” Umunna iterated.

For Umunna, it’s ideas like Small Business Saturday 2016 that provide the business environment Britain needs, and the correct conditions for entrepreneurialism.

He welcomed the May government’s new industrial strategy, but warned “there’s a huge amount still to do” to help small business, namely investment in infrastructure, transport and digital connectivity.

“We need to do all we can via the tax system to encourage businesses to invest, in things like new premises and machinery, as well as training and skills,” Umunna also outlined. “For me, these are core parts of an industrial strategy that puts business first.”

More broadly, and taking into account significant government-led drives in enterprise policy in recent years, encouraged the country as a whole to think tactically about what it’s best at. “What’s our niche?” he asked.

“The best startups focus on one thing and do it well. The important thing for the UK is to follow suit and identify which areas we have a comparative advantage in.”

“We then need to look into those sectors, understand them and ‘turbocharge’ them, using government to provide coordination, as well as funds where the private sector may not be able to, especially for early stage businesses.”

Evidently a man who understands how important business creation is in a dynamic economy, Umunna is noticeably excited about the progress Small Business Saturday UK has made.

With Small Business Saturday 2016 now only a few days away, Umunna hopes this year will once again produce a record-breaking campaign, telling Business Advice: “When I leave politics, I’m certain Small Business Saturday will be one of the things I’m proudest of.”

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Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.