“[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”.