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's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories