Leading article: It's hard, but Labour must target Del boy

Jack Woolley doesn't look like a Labour voter. With his little Ambridge business, he seems the typical Tory, straight from the village green and warm beer of Major's little England. Del boy is hardly a Blairite either. Rodders and Uncle Albert conceivably stray from their Peckham council estate to vote for Harriet Harman, but surely not Del. That self- made spiv, self-reliant and competitive, ducking the rules and regulations of big government, makes an aspirational Thatcherite. Even Ronnie Barker's Arkwright, his Yorkshire corner shop open all hours, appears no friend to the red flag or red rose.

Assuming our soapy heroes reflect our national culture, things do not look good for Labour's latest campaigning venture. Winning the hearts and minds of small businessmen and women, as Labour claims it wants to do, will not be easy. The cultural objections to Labour run deep, and certain genuine policy differences remain.

Nevertheless, the appeal is worth making. For a start, Labour cannot afford to be too out of touch with the growing band of Trotters and Woolleys in the world. There are too many votes at stake. But even if Mr Blair and Barbara Roche, his small business lieutenant, cannot turn many votes, they will still improve their ability to govern all of us well if they address themselves seriously to small business concerns.

Rural and urban, uneducated and professional, no matter how different their social background, small businessmen and women have always seemed to have one thing in common: voting Conservative. Loathing big government, fiercely self-sufficient and competitive, they formed the bedrock of the parties of the right throughout Europe. The little rentiers and the petty bourgeoisie kept the socialists out in France for almost a century. In Spain they helped keep Franco in power. Little business people and left- wing (or even centrist) governments do not seem to go too well together.

But Tony Blair cannot afford to forget them. He needs their votes. Three and a half million people are self-employed. As the world of work gradually changes, as companies downsize and out-source, increasingly the people who once laboured together in unionised workplaces are striking out alone, under contract to their old company. The old Labour voters, shaped by common experience in the factories, are disappearing. If the votes of small businessmen and women seem important now, they will matter far more in future. Labour cannot afford to ignore the lingering perception that it is envious of success, hostile to aspirations, and disapproving of an independent competitive spirit.

Moreover there is no good reason why the interests and values of hard- working small business people should be out of kilter with a left-of-centre party. Del lives in a cramped council flat. His son Damien will have to face Peckham's schools, while Racquel could go out to work and boost the family income if she could only afford good child care. Expanding the opportunities of the little people, defending them against the powerful economic interests (be they big contracting companies or stubborn trade unions), giving them and their children a fair chance to succeed, should all fit neatly within a centre-left framework.

But the economic case for wooing small businesses is even stronger. Rodney and Uncle Albert depend on Del for their living. Half the private sector workforce now have jobs with companies of fewer than 100 employees. The tired cliche that small and medium-sized enterprises are the engine of growth remains true. Squeeze little entrepreneurs and you squeeze the economy. Even if small business leaders insist on disliking Labour values, a Labour government would have to persist in helping small businesses flourish.

For the most part, Labour policies should be perfectly acceptable to small businesses. Pursuing economic stability, cutting red tape, providing small business support all sound comforting enough. Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, has issued similar warm words himself. In one area Labour actually has something positive and distinctive to offer small businesses above and beyond current government policies: a statutory right to interest on late payment. For the countless little companies that suffer, scrimp and save, waiting for their bills to be paid by the big bullies who are collecting interest on the balance, this could mean the difference between profit and going under. Perhaps there is substance to Labour's claim that surveys show small businesses now prefer Labour to the Conservatives.

But the sticking point for many small shopkeepers, pub-owners and business entrepreneurs remains the minimum wage. For a small firm with few employees, wavering on the edge of closure, paternity leave, statutory holiday entitlements, and minimum rates of pay all hinder their chances of survival. Tony Blair will well remember answering questions from small business owners (possibly genuine, possibly Tory stooges) who phoned television and radio programmes during the 1992 election to insist that Labour's proposed minimum wage (then pounds 3.20 an hour) would force them to lay off half their staff. Faced with an almost tearful boarding house owner, convinced she will not be able to make ends meet, it is hard to argue that a minimum wage will not cost jobs. The fact remains that some small businesses that survive and compete only through paying staff abysmal rates will be squeezed out of the economy. Labour should not flinch from admitting this. Some small businesses will not get a great deal from a Labour government, nor should they. Sustaining an enterprise on the back of poverty pay is not acceptable, no matter how much the entrepreneur may want to keep going.

Our economy must be able to afford to do better. Understanding the interests of small business is the right way to run a government; pandering to their every plea is not.