Firstly, an apology. This interview is not accompanied by snaps of Bill Esterson in “a very stylish pink top hat, a pair of glasses and a pink jacket” – but the pictures are out there somewhere. As we pull up a chair in his Portcullis House office, the Shadow Business Minister reveals that he’s just undergone a speedy change of clothes after donning the snazzy gear for a breast cancer charity’s flagship ‘Wear It Pink’ campaign. Sadly, the riotous headgear is long gone as we sit down to dig into the detail of his party’s pitch to business - but thanks to Tory heavyweight Boris Johnson, Esterson’s brief is hardly lacking a flash of colour at the moment.
The ex-foreign secretary made headlines over the summer with reports of a foul-mouthed tirade against firms warning about the impact of a hard Brexit – and it’s a broadside Esterson and his colleagues on the Labour frontbench are keen to exploit as the party gears up for its annual conference. “The Tories have, in the immortal words of Boris Johnson, told business to f*** off,” he smiles. “Which rather leaves a space open for us.”
The Shadow Small Business Minister, who also has the Brexit-dominated international trade portfolio in his brief, argues that Conservative eurosceptics have launched “a pretty full-frontal attack on businesses large and small” in recent months, by directly hitting out at firms who question Britain’s departure from the EU. It’s a charge strengthened, Esterson says, when Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab chooses to lay into retailer John Lewis’ claim that Brexit is partly to blame for a sharp slump in profits. The Labour frontbencher says Raab’s decision to start “attacking a great British brand for their honesty” shows that Boris Johnson’s “F*** business” attitude hasn’t left the cabinet with him.
As well as blasting the Conservatives on Brexit, the Labour frontbencher has even gone so far as to claim that Labour is now “the true party of small business” - an audacious bid for ground traditionally occupied by the Tories. The shadow minister clearly believes his party has done enough heavy-lifting to justify the bold claim, however. “The policies that we’ve been developing now for a number of years are wholly on the side of businesses who want to do the right thing,” he says. “We support businesses who want to play by the rules, who want to get on by treating their staff properly, by paying their suppliers on time, by taking a responsible attitude to the environment, by employing people on the basis of ability rather than who they know.”
Esterson says he has a “very, very healthy relationship” with the Federation of Small Businesses, while the Institute for Directors and the CBI – lobby groups representing bosses and big firms respectively – are now starting to take the party seriously, despite the fiery rhetoric that comes from a party that’s vowed to radically alter the balance of power in Britain. There has, Esterson claims, been a “sea change in the attitudes of the business community towards Labour” since last year’s general election, and he says it makes “perfect sense that the party of the worker should be the party of business too”.
“If you look at the most successful economies in the world - the IMF and the OECD both say this - they are characterised by being highly paid, by being unionised,” he says. “If you pay your workers well it means they’ve got more money to go on the goods and services produced by business. It’s actually common sense - and I think increasingly businesses can see a sense in what we’re saying.”
Esterson – who enjoys a thumping majority in his Sefton Central seat and has loyally served Jeremy Corbyn in the same job ever since the left-wing leader first seized the reins of power in 2015 – has also had plenty of time to get stuck into his brief, and he says he wants to make sure Labour is in a position “to support, encourage and put in place the conditions for businesses in this country to thrive” in the event of another snap election. The party has tried to woo smaller firms by promising a crackdown on unscrupulous business giants who fail to pay their subcontractors on time, while it’s also pledged to help them access capital more easily with a National Investment Bank and exempt them from the hike to corporation tax that Labour is planning for big companies.
The Shadow Business Minister also reveals for the first time that Labour is working on plans to emulate the United States’ Small Business Administration (SBA), a self-funding federal agency that has helped to incubate big American success stories like Apple and Nike. Although the proposals are some way off completion, Esterson says “a one-stop shop for business start-ups and for growth is really important”, and he wants an SBA-style agency to offer British firms the kind of accounting advice, help accessing finance, and mentoring that the SBA provides across the pond. “I’d love to see something like that in this country,” he says. “If we can develop our small business sector, make it much stronger, see far more of them succeed and continue to grow and thrive, we can create more of our own medium-sized firms and give greater stability and strength to the UK economy.”
While it’s clear Labour is working hard to build bridges with the small business community, then, the party’s own stance on Brexit means it’s hardly immune from some of the same criticisms currently being levelled at the Tories. Esterson deftly ducks the question when asked to name a single upside of leaving the European Union for small firms. “Look, I voted to Remain in the European Union,” he says. “I don’t want us to leave the European Union. But, you know, we’ve accepted the result. I don’t think it particularly gets us anywhere to be visiting questions of whether we’re going to be better off – we’re clearly going to be worse off outside the European Union – and businesses are.”
He argues that Labour’s so-called ‘Jobs First’ Brexit – backing membership of the EU’s customs union through the two-year transition period before seeking a fresh customs deal after that – will soften the impact on smaller firms and avoid “falling off a cliff” under the no-deal scenario being talked up by some Brexiteers. There are, however, no signs that Labour’s vision of Brexit would necessarily be any more palatable to the EU, which has repeatedly said its four freedoms are “indivisible” and warned Britain against trying to “cherry-pick” the bits of membership it likes. Isn’t there a risk that Labour – pledging to secure full access to the single market while also ending the free movement of people – risks overpromising its pitch to small business?
Again, the Labour frontbencher parries the question. “If you look at the alternatives that we’re offering – you know, a new, comprehensive customs union, maintaining the regulatory environment that we have now, ensuring we have common standards – those are all guaranteed to avoid disruption post-Brexit. I think that’s where the business community is. People have accepted the result of the referendum in the business community by and large, as has the Labour party, but it doesn’t mean we have to be – that we shouldn’t be arguing for arrangements that look after the economy, business and jobs. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
It’s fair to say Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow team has chopped and changed during his sometimes-tumultuous leadership of Labour, with rebellions, a vote of no confidence and sharp ideological differences resulting in frequent reshuffles of the party’s frontbenchers. Esterson, however, has stayed firmly put. Even so, he pulls no punches when asked whether the party’s summer-long row over anti-Semitism has overshadowed the kind of issues he’s keen to talk about. “It’s entirely self-inflicted by the Labour party,” he says of the split with Jewish groups.
Esterson speaks to The House in the week Labour’s ruling body finally agrees to fully incorporate an internationally-recognised definition of anti-Jewish abuse in the party’s code of conduct. “We could have dealt with the concerns the Jewish community had about our approach to anti-Semitism months ago, and we should have done,” he says. “I’m glad that we have now, and we’ve got to move on from it. But yeah, it’s been frustrating.” He agrees that the party’s “excellent” ‘Build it in Britain’ campaign – aiming to flaunt its support for domestic manufacturing – was a “missed opportunity” that become overshadowed by the row. But he vows that Labour will return to the theme in the coming months and says the party is offering “a fresh start, hope and optimism at a highly uncertain, and potentially very dangerous, time”.
“It’s really important people hear that message of hope,” he says. “I want them to be optimistic about the future, and I’m hoping we can get back on with delivering that message.”
LABOUR AS A BROAD CHURCH
There are many proud traditions within the party, and it’s extremely important that we retain all of them. We shouldn’t make the mistake of misunderstanding the difference between debate and division. There are healthy debates going on in the party about what the right policies are, about what the right agenda is, about what the right approach might be. To have that debate is a thoroughly good thing… The party of Corbyn and the party of Blair are the same party. That was true when Blair was leader, it’s true now that Corbyn’s leader. What we’ve got to do is use the talents of all of us in getting it right for the people of this country, and delivering a more prosperous future.
Spending time with my two children is incredibly important to me. It’s a really tough life for families and I haven’t always got that right. I re-evaluate this all the time. I have a very busy schedule down here and in the constituency as well. But if you don’t get your family life right and the balance of life right, and you don’t look after those closest to you, there’s actually not much point doing the other things.
WHAT HE WISHES HE’D KNOWN IN 2010
The importance of really properly being briefed and understanding the subject before commenting on it - because you get asked to go and speak in all sorts of debates and ask questions about all sorts of topics that you don’t really know inside out and upside down. And there’s no substitute for proper preparation and planning and putting aside the time to get it right. The people who do that are probably most effective at this job.