Is red tape killing the recovery? Probably not, no

The idea that regulation is the problem is simplistic, overstated, and misapplied.

The argument goes like this: Our wealth creators are chomping at the bit to hire more people, produce more output, and sell more stuff. The only problem is that nasty government regulations are stopping them from doing it. Scrap those regulations, and bust turns to boom!

It's an appealing argument to many in the Conservative party, because it has the side effect of shifting the blame for slow growth from macroeconomic policies—particularly the historic failure of austerity. It also lets Tories express sympathy with the aims of policies like a minimum wage, health and safety regulations, or employment protections, without actually committing to keep them.

Small wonder that Conservatives as diverse as Louise Mensch, party donor Adrian Beecroft and the Institute of Directors think-tank have all expressed a desire to slash "red tape", particularly when it comes in the form of regulations protecting employees against their bosses.

But their starting premise is wrong. Business executives—the archetypal "wealth creators" if any are—aren't chomping at the bit to deregulate. In fact, they're far more concerned about their inability to borrow and the difficulty they have paying taxes, as they tell the World Economic Forum:

It's not just big businesses. In August 2012 the Department for Business, Enterprise and Skills asked 500 heads of small and medium sized enterprises about what they considered the main obstacle to success. “The state of the economy” was the biggest issue, listed by 45 per cent and “obtaining finance” was next, mentioned by 12 per cent. After this came taxation, cashflow, competition and regulations—just 6 per cent listed regulations as their main concern.

In Britain, part of the reason businesses don't care about red tape is that it's all part of the level playing field. The minimum wage doesn't hurt small businesses if all their competitors have to pay it as well. But, as Louise Mensch points out, there's the international context to take into account as well:

"The left think they're helping working people by providing more rights", she told the Observer in 2011. "But all that actually happens is you create poverty and despair, because jobs go to your competitors who have fewer rights for workers."

In fact, you have to look hard to find competitors to Britain who have fewer rights for workers. By international standards, the UK is not heavily regulated at all. In fact, when the OECD assessed the strength of employment protections across all its member nations, the UK was third from the bottom. Apart from the US and Canada, we have the least employment red tape in the developed world:

And when we look at the protections workers have against unfair dismissal – a specific protection attacked by Adrian Beecroft’s 2011 report on employment law – the UK is even closer to being the “freest” nation in the world. Only the US has fewer protections than us:

But the most important aspect of regulations is frequently missed in discussions of whether they hurt businesses: regulations have direct benefits. It's a point made alarmingly infrequently in a climate where the burdens of regulations are brought up on a monthly basis.

For instance, the minimum wage has costs—to businesses, which have to pay higher wages, but also theoretically to workers, who may find that they aren't employable for that much. The minimum wage also has benefits. It boosts the income of the lowest paid and as such is a very effective way to boost aggregate demand. It can also increase productivity in a number of ways.

None of this should obscure the most important point: the poorest paid people in society suddenly have more money. That's not a by-product; it's the entire aim. And discussing what businesses think about the burden without acknowledging that benefit will always result in a skewed conclusion.

For more, take a look at our article produced with nef and the Tax Justice Network as part of their "Mythbusters" series, addressing the myth that "red tape" is preventing the recovery.

Some red tape. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Exell is a senior policy officer at the TUC and Alex Hern is the New Statesman's economics reporter.

Photo: Getty
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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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