The government's "patent box" is the tax avoidance package companies have been begging for

It might incentivise innovation, but it definitely incentivises paying far less tax.

The Conservative party back-benches are seething with rebellion. Not only do ministers deplore David Cameron for an un-Tory like attitude toward gay marriage, in recent weeks he has further upset them with a positively radical spiel directed against those super-corporations the conservative leader suspects of tax avoidance:

Any businesses who think that they can carry on dodging their fair share ... need to wake up and smell the coffee.

However. Refreshing though the rhetoric certainly is, the actions of the Government seem to tell a different story. Corporation tax will have fallen from 28 per cent to 21 per cent toward the end of the Government’s first term in 2014 — and this will translate into a loss of roughly £5 billion in tax revenues each year as those cuts are enacted (according to 2011 estimations by the Treasury).

The buck doesn’t stop there. In order to better facilitate corporate needs, HM Revenue and Customs is set to introduce a new form of tax relief for businesses due to begin in April this year. It’s called the Patent Box. Ostensibly, it means that a company which shows sufficient innovative nous by patenting innovations will be entitled to a tax break of 13 per cent, applied to the value of the product. In theory this should provide impetus for companies to conceive fabulous new technologies, and give a spurt to growth and development thereby. Right?

Well not quite. The first problem is that said companies are not actually required to own the patent themselves in order to attain the tax break. They can simply lease a patent from the original patent owner; consequently there is no real incentive to invent stuff creatively and in-house, so to speak. But the most salient fact about the Patent Box is that it does not apply to the patent in isolation. A company could, for instance, produce a tractor, and if that tractor was possessed of a patented right view mirror, the revenue from the whole vehicle itself — not only the mirror — would be subject to same overall and significantly larger cut in tax.

In other words, a measure which appears to contain a degree of legitimacy, in fact becomes yet another way for big corporations to achieve massive, unwarranted tax slashes on their products. And this is ironic. The Conservatives always pride themselves on encouraging small business development, perhaps because this provides a highly effective propaganda sheen — allowing their PR initiatives to be expressed in terms of hard working individuals and entrepreneurs rather than faceless corporate monoliths. But the Patent Box will only serve the latter. Small businesses do not have the purchasing power to buy in bulk the products which will benefit from the tax cut, nor can they afford to gamble with new technological innovations, nor can they divert money into buying up the patents of others.

Part of the whole problem lies in the way in which the government develops Controlled Foreign Companies (CFCs) regulations. One of the lead advisors who helped the government to devise the Patent Box was one Jonathan Bridges — a tax advisor for KPMG, an accountancy company which has no remit outside ensuring the lowest tax returns for its corporate clientèle; it has, therefore, no commitment to any notional "national interest".

The use of the representatives of corporate power to provide advice on the means by which that power should be channelled in socially effective ways makes about as much sense as employing a local war lord to advise on the committee of Amnesty International. But despite its connotations, the practise of employing huge corporations to help devise precisely the laws which are supposed to regulate them is one which both the current and the previous Government have engaged in. At the time of the transition to the coalition government, Labour had already set up working groups for consultations regarding CFC reforms; panels which included representatives of HSBC, Vodafone and Shell — all major multi-nationals and all involved in controversies regarding tax evasion.

The current Government has an objective rationale for its position which isn’t simply an expression of neo-liberal ideology and partisan politics. These super-companies have genuine power — and the ability to decamp to another country taking thousands of jobs with them. Like petulant, spoiled children, they are always on the verge of tantrum, should their desires not at once be met. In the midst of an economic crisis there is a cogent argument that any single Government must of necessity make their tax rates as favourable as possible in order to attract those companies and secure those jobs.

But the problem with such an argument lies in its generalisation. If every government follows suit, slashing corporate tax over and over in order to remain competitive, and if all governments adhere to the strictures of such competition, we are at once locked into a downward spiral, a race to the bottom in which the benefits gained from corporation tax are increasingly illusory.

And it is important to recognise that this is exactly the type of cycle which got us here in the first place. We were sold on the need to slash regulations in the finance industry, and look what happened. By playing this game the government are not responding pro-actively to the crisis, they are adopting the very logic which led to it.

How can these companies be regulated? By people putting pressure on their governments for sure. But also by directly targeting the companies themselves through grass-roots activity and customer boycotts. Following mass protest, Starbucks was recently "persuaded" to agree to pay £10m in corporation tax in the UK for each of the next two years. A drop in the ocean certainly. But nevertheless an indication that, ultimately, it is the consumer who has the ability to make or break a company.

Innovate on the mirror, profit on the tractor. Photograph: Getty Images
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