Richard Graham is a member of the DEXU Select Committee, and is MP for Gloucester.
If the Conservatives are anything, we are the Party of Business. We understand how to grow an economy through incentivising investment, encouraging business to provide jobs and opportunities: the sky’s the limit. We work with both academic and vocational providers of skills and business to make sure that Britain has the right skills to stimulate innovation.
But that does not make us the party of rampant capitalism, trampling over human rights – ours is the party of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, and it’s our Prime Minister who led on legislation against Modern Slavery and female genital mutilation. Where we differ from other parties is getting the balance right – encouraging people to come off benefits rather than making a life on benefits more attractive financially and less hassle. Every Labour government has ended in the equivalent of Liam Byrne’s note (“I’m afraid there is no money left”) , and the country then turns to us to sort out the mess.
Since 2010, the Conservatives have done it again. We’ve hugely reduced an enormous deficit – at the same time as Scotland has increased theirs sharply – and created over three million new jobs, more than all the other nations of the EU put together. And last month, we generated a surplus that caught economists by surprise, as has the robustness of the UK economy in general over the last seven years, particularly since Brexit.
It’s easy to forget this was not what the socialists predicted. David Blanchflower, Ed Balls, the Guardian, the New Statesman and all the other usual suspects spent the years 2010-2012 telling the nation Conservative policies would result in millions more unemployed. Now their narrative is that all of the new jobs are cheap zero hours exploitation – a lie easily put to bed by figures showing that three quarters of the new jobs are full time. And perhaps by illustrating the number of Labour-run councils (not to mention Labour MPs) who employ zero hour workers.
Labour hypocrisy needs to be exposed. There was a good moment during the last Parliament when the Labour front bench were railing against Conservatives for enabling pension funds to use CPI instead of RPI as the inflation rate for pension increases. It was unfortunate that Labour’s own pension fund for party agents had already made exactly that switch.
But we have to make our case persuasively, bringing it alive with examples, if we’re to win elections. And in the last election we didn’t make the case, not just for economic competence – a pretty dull virtue until you’re landed with the opposite, as in say Venezuela – but also why business is a positive for people’s jobs and lives, rather than being the greedy cockroach broadly painted by Labour.
One middle-aged voter in Gloucester, not earning much and with no great love of Conservative politicians, told me in June he would vote for me simply because he’d been laid off during the recession under Gordon Brown, felt Jeremy Corbyn had even less of a clue about how to keep him in work – and didn’t want the risk of being unemployed again under an extreme socialist experiment. Quite.
In my constituency of Gloucester alone, there were more than 5000 people that lost jobs in business during the Great Recession under Labour, and youth unemployment rocketed. It’s down now by 70 per cent, and many have benefited from the huge increase in employment that government has funded the training for. But their voices weren’t heard in this year’s election: we didn’t motivate an army of apprentices, or those who’d been on David Cameron’s National Citizen Service course. There was nothing to bring the positives of record employment alive to the young. And while Corbyn was offering the earth to predominantly middle-class university students, where was the Conservative voice speaking up for the parents of apprentices (who earn while they learn), and asking why they should pay tax to subsidise undergraduates’ tuition?
Interestingly, too, the numbers of jobs in most manufacturers in or just outside Gloucester (14 per cent of local GDP – much higher than the national average) have gone up since Labour left power. The same is true elsewhere – but again we made nothing of this at all, allowing Corbyn to be the only voice to talk about manufacturing at all.
Nor is this just about blokes. One of the most striking successes at Gloucestershire Engineering Training (a charity owned by business, something socialism struggles with and would probably nationalise if it could) is the increase of female engineering apprentices. When it comes to gender equality, women in jobs, the narrowing gap between the highest and lowest wages, work to help those with disabilities into work and a host of other social justice measurements, we have a much better sorry to tell than the country knows.
Of course we could do more: I would give businesses NI reductions (as for apprentices) for hiring those with disabilities because (as with apprentices) many businesses are nervous of how to manage them. Once they’ve hired someone and seen their productivity and the rise in employee morale that often goes with hiring someone with disabilities, their whole approach will change. I would also give earlier payments under Universal Credit to avoid a spiral of early debt and housing arrears. But the key is these are our programmes – with Labour boxed in again on a mantra of ‘it won’t work’.
Let me give an example of what a Conservative approach can achieve. On the edge of Gloucester is one of the best schools for severely disabled children in the whole country, Milestone. It’s a place that leaves no visitor unmoved about what it does to help the most vulnerable. It recently received its third successive Outstanding rating from Ofsted under an inspirational Head Teacher, Lyn Dance.
It also received £1.5 million for an ambitious new hydrotherapy and sports complex project for the seriously disabled pupils (and others in the local community) from Gloucestershire-headquartered St James’s Place. This takes Milestone a long way towards its target and means that the project will, I believe, go on to achieve its funding goal and make a big difference to the lives of those with the greatest difficulties. St James’s Place is the sort of financial business real socialists would consider a parasite (managing assets) and try to tax into oblivion, rather than allowing it to flourish – and in turn give back to society through its Foundation.
It is time, across the country, to stand up not just for the Party of Business, but for the Conservative values that underpin what successful business can achieve – whether in apprenticeships, manufacturing exports, jobs or contributions to good causes. And while we’re at it lets also tackle the lie peddled by both Labour and Lib Dems that more public spending – pick a figure – can easily be afforded by increasing business tax.
We failed in GE2017 to explain that by reducing the corporate tax rate we’ve raised more tax to fund vital services. But the Infographic at the top of this article was finally produced recently, and we must re-make the point of Thatcherism and Reaganomics again and again – you generate more tax for services by cutting, not by increasing, taxes. Of course, the correlation doesn’t continue indefinitely and the Chancellor must decide what the optimal rate today is by reference to the Laffer Curve – a subject for another day.
What matters now is proving the case for low tax rates and higher tax revenue, and explaining why a great forest of taxpayer funds, without anyone having to do anything but increase business tax, simply doesn’t exist. For that we need business, and workers, to help make the case.
So I hope that during the coming Party Conference we tackle these issues head on: that we re-make the case for being the Party of Business and responsible capitalism, with businesses giving back to the communities in which we encourage it to succeed: the party of lower but more tax that funds our health and welfare system. The spending on this has (contrary to socialist myth) continued to increase in the last seven years; an uncomfortable fact for those who oppose Conservative ‘austerity’.
At that conference, let’s make our case for the values of community and country, with examples of lives changed and improved by understanding business and motivating it to do good. That way we will show the link between business and better lives.