Employee ownership finally gets the backing of the Government

After the "shares for rights" false start, will the Government get it right this time?

The current profile and success of employee ownership is unprecedented. Employee ownership is now being embraced as the most prominent alternative to the over-dominant PLC model.

Employee owned businesses are largely or fully owned by their workforces either through direct employee share holdings or shares held in Trust on behalf of and for the benefit of employees. Their workforces are very actively engaged in the management and development of their businesses. And economic competitiveness and high performance are a central part of the DNA of employee owned companies. The compelling success stories of employee owned businesses such as Clansman, Unipart and Arup demonstrate the very special nature of employee ownership.

More and more politicians, businesses and service commissioners are realising the contribution that employee ownership is making and can make to the growth agenda and to the delivery of world class public services. It is a realisation that employee owned organisations tend to achieve higher productivity, greater levels of innovation, better resilience to economic turbulence and have more fulfilled workers who are less stressed than colleagues in conventionally owned organisations. It is also a recognition that employee ownership works financially as over the last decade and more, investments in shares in employee owned businesses have considerably outperformed those in conventionally owned businesses.

This current interest in employee ownership has been reflected over recent weeks in two important initiatives.

Firstly the Treasury has completed its review into the taxation of employee ownership in the UK. Its conclusions, announced as part of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, are significant. The Autumn Statement argues that employee ownership is an important part of the UK growth agenda and explicitly confirms it as a business model that the Government supports. This is a powerful and unique endorsement of a part of the economy that contributes more than £30bn to UK GDP each year.

The Statement also undertakes to bring to the table the resources and expertise of the Treasury to work with other parts of Government to increase the number of employee owned businesses, to implement a package of simplifications to existing employee share schemes and to keep under review the possibility of introducing at the time of the next Budget further tax incentives to promote employee ownership.

Secondly, Government has accepted in full all of the recommendations for how to grow employee ownership in the UK that are contained in the recently completed Nuttall Review into the barriers to such growth.

The inaugural meeting of the group that is now accountable for the implementation of these recommendations, chaired by the relevant Minister Jo Swinson MP, has just taken place. This development brings a realistic prospect that a new future for employee ownership that many of us have been driving for will arrive. A future in which there is far greater awareness of employee ownership options, there is a simplification of those options and there is better access to finance and advice for businesses that want to implement and or fund employee ownership.

These two reviews, the Treasury and Nuttall Reviews, are ones that the Employee Ownership Association successfully pushed very hard for.

Their outcomes and the attendant commitments mark another important step along the way towards employee ownership becoming a central part of industrial policy, part of the mainstream.

Employee ownership is currently growing at an annual rate of around 10 per cent. Interest in it within business communities and amongst public service commissioners is increasing daily. The number of funders and advisors competent to engage in employee ownership is on the rise. These are exciting times.  The challenge ahead is to build on this momentum in pursuit of the big picture – 10 per cent of UK GDP delivered by employee ownership by 2020. With the right will and skill this is perfectly possible.

The Co-operative society circa 1929. Photograph: Getty Images

Iain Hasdell is the chief executive of the Employee Ownership Association the voice of employee owned businesses in the UK and a member of the Mutuals Task Force.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation