James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
I wrote recently how the Government enjoys the great luxury of time because of the weakness of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour – time Number 10 and Government departments can spend planning and executing key functions of Government rather than worrying about what competent opposition parties might do. It’s a great position to be in but there’s a problem associated with it, too.
The lack of serious opposition and scrutiny has cost the Government some of its sharpness. As is so often true in politics, it’s not on the really big issues in the public eye where the Government makes errors, but on issues irrelevant to people that live and work in Whitehall and Westminster but important to ordinary people across the country. These are issues rarely discussed in political circles and where politicians and advisers have no intuitive sense for what’s right.
The most obvious problem surrounds business rates, which has been creating negative headlines for weeks. While research by the Centre for Cities suggests business rates will fall in most cities in England and Wales, business lobby groups are extremely concerned about the prospect of significant increases when they consider property taxes to be high already. Whether their concern is overstated remains to be seen, but small firms are particularly concerned about the prospects of higher rates. At best, this was a major problem of communication.
This problem was followed by the announcement that the so-called “discount rate” – used to calculate compensation payouts – is set to fall. This could lead to higher compensation payouts and therefore threatens much higher car insurance premiums. Given that people outside London rely almost entirely on their cars, it’s a bad decision. The Government has said it’ll look again at the plans, which is encouraging, but the nature of any change is unclear now. (Full disclosure: Public First currently works with the Association of British Insurers on an unrelated project.)
And in a similar vein, we now hear that the Government is looking at further changes to the tax status of the self-employed and those that run small businesses. Amongst other things, it’s been suggested the Government might look at raising NICs for the self-employed and further raise taxes on dividend payments. While such changes are meant to ensure national tax revenues don’t drop as self-employment rises and the structure of the economy evolves, it risks major tax rises on people that struggle to make a decent middle class living.
Some will deny such policy changes could be called errors. At a time when the Government needs more revenue, that’s reasonable. But there are many options available to Government and going after small businesses and people that rely on their cars can’t surely be considered anything other than political mistakes. If the Government still defines itself by those just about managing, it’s a strange political agenda.
It would be wrong to suggest the Government is on the wrong side of public opinion generally and wrong to suggest that it’s serially incompetent. On the contrary, it’s getting the big decisions right and Number 10 and the wider Government machine is well run. But it’s on what might seem like little things – somewhat technical policies which only affect those in faraway provincial Britain – where the Government is making mistakes.