John Cridland's assault on Miliband completes the CBI's divorce from reality

The CBI head presents the Labour leader's plans as dangerous Bolshevism. But in an age of market failure, most businesses won't agree with him.

"[It] raised the hairs on the back of my neck". That was the reaction of CBI head John Cridland to Ed Miliband's conference speech. What could have inspired such terror? In an interview in today's Times, Cridland cites "price controls, wage controls, land controls, increased corporation tax" and Miliband's alleged contempt for "large companies" as evidence of his nefarious socialism. "It’s the aggregation of those five. It has caused business to scratch their heads...It’s quite a philosophical speech, and a shift to the left," he says. 

But look beyond the rhetoric, and Cridland's intervention is more revealing of the CBI's conservatism than it is of Miliband's radicalism. His attack on "wage controls", for instance, is a reference to Miliband's pledge to examine the possibility of increasing the minimum wage in sectors such as finance, construction and computing. At present, with the minimum wage now worth no more than it was in 2004 (after being continually eroded by inflation) and with 4.8 million workers paid less than the living wage, it is the taxpayer that is forced to pick up the bill in the form of tax credits and other in-work benefits. Why should making those businesses that can afford to pay their staff more do so, be considered dangerous leftism? Were Cridland a more enlightened figure, he might have noted that those companies who pay their employees the living wage of £7.45 an hour (£8.55 in London) report increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, improved morale and higher staff retention rates. 

And it's not only here that Cridland is engaged in crude political spin. On corporation tax, Miliband has modestly proposed increasing the main rate from 20% to 21% in order to fund a reduction in businesses rates for commercial premises with an annual rental value of £50,000 or less. This move would still leave the UK with the second-lowest corporate tax rate in the G20 (after the coalition reduced it from a starting level of 28% in 2010) and one well below the US's 39%, Japan's 38% and Germany's 30%. It was the Conservatives' Zac Goldsmith who quipped after Miliband's speech, "The CBI attacks Miliband's plans for small firms. That suggest he might be on to something."

As for the Labour leader's plan to force developers to "use or lose" their land, framed by Cridland as Bolshevik-style requisition, that enjoys the support of that well-known radical, Boris Johnson. As the mayor recently told the London Assembly: "To constrict supply to push up prices by land-banking is plainly against the economic interests of this city. I’m all in favour of using the powers where there are clear cases of land-banking, where people could go ahead with developments that would be massively to the benefit of this city."

While developers sit on vacant land and wait for its value to go up, thousands of houses with planning permission are left unbuilt. Figures published by the Local Government Association show that there are 400,000 homes with permission that have not developed, while in London, where demand is highest, there are 170,000, this at a time when housing starts have fallen to 98,280, less than half the number required to meet need (230,000). Is it really anti-business to want to ensure employees are able to live in the city where they work? 

On energy prices, Cridland argues, "I think we have to be honest and open with the public that bills are going to have to go up for households to make up for years of insufficient investment". He is certainly right about the need for greater investment, but why should families be penalised at a time of collapsing living standards?

As another famed socialist, John Major, observed at last week's Press Gallery lunch, "I do not regard it as acceptable that they have increased prices by this tremendous amount. Nor do I regard their explanation as acceptable, that they are investing for the future. With interest rates at their present level, it’s not beyond the wit of man to do what companies have done since the dawn of time and borrow for their investment rather than funding a large proportion of their investment out of the revenue of families whose wages have not been going up at a time when other costs have been rising".

One searches in vain in Miliband's speech for any evidence of his alleged loathing of all large companies, but when the head of the UK's biggest employers' group (albeit one that still represents just 5% of businesses) so casually dismisses reforms that would improve conditions for millions of workers and owners, it becomes clearer what the Labour leader meant when he first spoke of "the predators" and "the producers". 

CBI Director General John Cridland addresses the CBI Scotland annual dinner on September 6, 2012 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.