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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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.