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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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