Chris Leslie, the shadow chancellor, supports the pay freeze. But his next boss disagrees. Photo: Getty Images
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Labour at odds over public sector pay freeze

Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn are all against the public sector pay freeze. But Harriet Harman and Chris Leslie both back the policy. 

Labour's leadership candidates have all announced their opposition to the continuing public sector pay freeze, putting them on a collision course with Harriet Harman, the party's acting leader, and Chris Leslie, the shadow chancellor.

Andy Burnham, the bookmakers' favourite, was the first candidate to rule out a continuation of the pay freeze, while Liz Kendall also confirmed her opposition to continuing pay restraint at a Q&A in central London this morning. The Kendall campaign believe that they can find the money to end the freeze through reducing the scale of British tax breaks - which currently stand at £100bn a year. 

Yvette Cooper believes that continuing the pay freeze - which has been in place since 2010 - will hit recruitment and retention. "Is the Chancellor really saying he can afford to cut inheritance tax for estates worth £1million," the shadow home secretary asks, "but the people who care for us and keep us safe should have to face five more years of real term pay cuts?" Cooper believes that a decade worth of cuts to public sector pay will do lasting damage to the quality and morale of public sector staff, and that, in any case, that the NHS is increasingly having to turn to more expensive agency staff to fill staffing gaps means the savings are void.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is against cuts and will not be supporting the public sector pay freeze. That puts all four candidates in opposition to the policy position set out by Harman and Leslie.

In some respects, the fact that Harman will leave office when the new leader is elected on September 12 renders the row moot. However, Leslie, who is supporting Cooper's bid and is a longstanding ally of the shadow home secretary, was considered likely to remain in post as shadow chancellor should either Cooper or Kendall win the leadership. (Should Burnham win, Rachel Reeves is widely tipped to be appointed both his official deputy, and shadow chancellor, shadowing George Osborne both as Chancellor and as First Secretary of State.) His support of the pay freeze may imperil his chances of keeping hold of the role, or re-open the divides of the first phase of Ed Miliband's leadership, when he and Alan Johnson disagreed over the 50p rate and tuition fees. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.