Who needs time travel when you have enterprise?

The economy is back to where it was in 2006 - where do we go from here?

It’s strange to be waking up in summer 2012 to find ourselves in an economy that is no bigger than it was in 2006. So how can we travel "back to the future" and get the economy back on track? In the absence of a plutonium-powered car, the vehicle to get us back to economic growth is enterprise.

Centre for Cities’ new report, "Open for Business", shows how important enterprise is to a city economy. The research, sponsored by ICAEW, takes a detailed look at the make-up of city economies to establish what makes a city economically successful.

It finds there are two prongs to private sector economic growth in our cities – the ability to attract businesses from elsewhere (other UK cities and abroad) and the ability to "grow your own’. Our strongest cities are those that have been able to do both.

A detailed breakdown of the business bases of UK cities reinforces this point. The majority of the UK’s strongest cities are those that have a large proportion of branch businesses and high levels of enterprise:

Of course, being open to external business also means that in the short term some cities may be even more exposed to turbulence in the global economy. The Eurozone crisis may impact upon businesses headquartered in the Eurozone, potentially leading to consolidation of businesses and knock-on job losses. Cities like Coventry and Swindon, with a higher proportion of Eurozone-owned businesses, will need to focus on policies that can support domestic enterprise to help offset any potential fallout from troubles across the Channel.

Overall it is clear from the research that cities with a mix of home grown businesses and branches are best placed to weather any storms heading our way. But what does this mean for policy?

There has been no shortage of enterprise initiatives from previous Governments, ranging from Thatcher's Enterprise Allowance Scheme to New Labour's Local Enterprise Growth Initiative. The recently launched Start-up Loans are the latest addition to the list. But the impact that these schemes have had upon levels of enterprise is difficult to quantify based on existing evidence. So what can the government and cities do to hit the accelerate button on enterprise at a time of economic instability?

One thing that can make an important difference is for national government and cities to continue investing in the core themes that make a big difference to business. This means improving transport and skills and making the planning process more responsive to business needs.

Cities also need to respond to the specific challenges facing their local economies. Our work shows that open, entrepreneurial cities are best placed to grow, and cities should aim for this mix of home-grown business and receptive to new ideas and people.

Depending on the city’s specialisms and where it needs to improve, this could mean implementing policies from support for start-ups or existing companies to ensuring the city is working with UKTI and others to showcase where there are opportunities for external investment.

It will take time to get back to where our economy should be. But by getting enterprise policy right today, cities can help to steer the wider UK out of economic underperformance and into growth.

TechHub, a start-up shared space in Old Street, West London. Photograph: Getty Images

Alexandra Jones is the director of the Centre for Cities

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide