The coalition is still failing business

The government's enterprise bill provides no evidence of a clear strategic direction.

Today the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill receives its second reading in the House of Commons.  It was trailed in the days before the Queen’s Speech as the centrepiece of a legislative programme by the government built on “growth, justice and constitutional reform”.  In reality, it is anything but.

The bill is a good illustration of the weaknesses and divisions at the heart of the government. The most pressing issue facing Britain is the fact that the economy has gone into reverse. The Prime Minister and Chancellor may wish to hide behind the fact that there is a eurozone crisis, or that we had too many days off because of the Queen’s diamond jubilee, or that the weather is slightly too cold or too hot, or – at the moment – too much rain. But everyone else seems to realise, with the exception of the occupants of 10 and 11 Downing Street, that their insistence on cutting spending and raising taxes too far and too fast, and thereby choking off demand in the domestic economy, has plunged this country back into a recession made in Downing Street. What we need is a proper plan for jobs and growth to get the economy going again – like Labour’s five-point plan.

Only in the last few days, President Obama has implicitly criticised the government’s stance, noting that it is a lot harder to rein in deficits and debt if your economy is not growing.  Tellingly, he singled out Angela Merkel and François Hollande for “working to put in place a growth agenda alongside responsible fiscal plans”. No such praise for David Cameron or George Osborne.

There is no magic piece of legislation that would conjure up growth. But the case for a British Investment Bank needs to be examined, as Labour is doing.  Reforms to allow firms to better plan for the long-term, invest in new plant and skills and ensuring that there are more, better paid jobs so the economy works for more people, more of the time would also improve Britain’s competitiveness and allow us to get back into growth much more quickly.

In the longer-term, the bill provides no evidence of a clear strategic direction.  Business is crying out for a stable policy environment to allow them to invest and plan for the long-term; a proper industrial strategy, based on the long-term to encourage sustainable growth, but this bill has failed to provide this.

We have in the bill the establishment of the Green Investment Bank, a welcome initiative that Labour announced back in 2010, but it won’t have powers to lever in private money to boost green investment until 2016. 

There are reforms designed to make executive pay more accountable and transparent, but ministers are refusing to implement all of the sensible recommendations from the High Pay Commission such as putting an employee representative on remuneration committees – and now it appears that Vince Cable is seeking to water down provisions for annual shareholder votes on executive pay.

The bill includes reforms to employment legislation. There are some changes on tribunals which are worth exploring but, in a nod and a wink to the Tory right, the government is hinting that it could bring forward amendments during the bill’s passage to put Beecroft’s fire at will manifesto on the statute book, alongside other proposals within the bill to water down the rights we enjoy at work.

Cable lamented in his leaked letter to the Prime Minister that the government has lacked a compelling vision on where it wants to take the country’s economy by 2020.  With this bill had an opportunity to rectify this and provide the strategic vision which British business is crying out for, leaving a lasting legacy that would boost economic recovery and secure Britain’s competitiveness in the next decade. Faced with the roadblocks to reform in Downing Street, it is a great shame this opportunity has been missed.

The Chancellor continues to "hide behind the fact that there is a eurozone crisis". Photograph: Getty Images.

Iain Wright is the shadow minister for competitiveness and enterprise.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.