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.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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