Why the Tory right's "growth plans" won't work

Scrapping workers' rights and deregulating planning laws won't stimulate growth.

Labour may be most associated with calls for a "plan for growth" but recently they’ve been joined by another force: the Conservative right. Liam Fox was in the Times yesterday arguing for one, and the Free Enterprise Group group of backbenchers also have a book out entitled Britannia Unchained. Some of their ideas, however, might be not be helpful.

Cutting taxes for business

Cutting corporation tax has been proposed as a stimulus for business. There are two arguments behind this: firstly, a lower rate might attract foreign direct investment to the UK, and secondly, reducing the tax rate leaves overburdened businesses with more money, which could help them expand and create jobs.

Let’s first remember that any benefits from foreign corporations setting up shop in the UK would take years to filter through, and so not be suitable as a stimulus. In addition, it's not clear that cutting the rate further would attract much new business anyway. At 22%, the UK already has the fourth-lowest headline rate in the G20 after Saudi Arabia, Russia and Turkey. Comparable countries (Germany 31%, USA 41%, Japan 40%, France 35%), who all do far better in terms of domestic industry, all have higher rates. Any gains in competitiveness would be marginal at best.

As a boost to our existing businesses, a corporation tax cut is also largely pointless. This is because businesses have plenty of cash: UK firms are currently net savers and are sitting on a combined total of £754bn. This is not normal for a healthy market economy, where firms should be borrowing to invest. But there are no available investment opportunities, either because of a lack of demand or because of a more fundamental slowdown in the rate of innovation, and firms are just doing what is rational. Pumping them with more cash would be unlikely to have any effect. Since corporation tax is on a percentage of profits, there is also no reason why cutting it would make previously unprofitable investments viable. A cut in the rate would be unlikely to help.

Making it easier to fire people

The main recommendations to come out of the government’s Beecroft Report were ideas like no-fault dismissal and other restrictions on workers' rights. The stated justification is that firms are too scared to take on employees because it is difficult to get rid of them if they are underperforming.

One of the economic trends that ministers have sought to draw attention to is the contrast between growth and employment. Unemployment has been slowly but consistently falling, despite the economy shrinking. The most common explanation for this is because firms are hoarding labour, so they don’t have to reconstruct a skilled workgroup when demand returns in the future. The Bank of England looked at five indicators of labour hoarding and found that there was good evidence to suggest this is what was happening.

If this is the case, then firms are, in aggregate, feeling quite the opposite way that Beecroft suggests they are: hoarding labour beyond the point you need to is not really consistent with being terrified of taking on workers.

Conversely, if you’re suspicious of the Bank’s findings (and why not?) it could be possible that firms desperately want to get rid of these workers but can’t. This is unlikely because overall the UK labour market is pretty flexible (the third least regulated in the OECD according to the CIPD), but if this were true, then a lot of people would lose their jobs as newly liberated firms sacked with abandon. This would make the Beecroft proposals a recipe for unemployment.

Scrapping planning regulations

The Labour left has led calls for a housing stimulus, mainly composed of council housing. But an alternative take on this comes from Tory elements, within and without government. Get rid of planning laws, they say, and market-led housebuilding will commence.

The evidence suggests this policy has been plucked out of thin air. The Local Government Association reports that there are 400,000 homes with planning permission that haven’t been started by developers or have stalled their construction. Last year in London, where demand is highest, London Councils counted around 170,000 homes that had gained planning permission but were not been built.

This is not a picture of a planning bottleneck. It’s also why claimed successes of previous planning reforms that count permissions granted as delivery should be ignored, and why getting rid of more regulations will likely have higher costs than benefits.

Tory MP and former defence secretary Liam Fox is leading calls for deregulation. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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