Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.
What is Corbynomics? It goes without saying that it’s a much more extreme economic programme than Labour have ever had before. And that government will spend, tax and borrow more. But Labour have a lot more damaging, half-baked and dangerous ideas.
No-one is thinking about them at the moment, but the scary thing is that within weeks these ideas could be affecting your house, your pension and your job.
For me, the most frustrating thing is that Labour have identified various important issues, but their proposed “solutions” would make matters worse. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Seizing 10 per cent of all large companies’ shares
Lots of people, including me, worry that current corporate structures create pressures that make managers behave in a short-termist way, squeezing investment to hit short term profit targets and dragging down productivity growth. I’m concerned that publicly quoted firms are beholden to increasingly transient shareholders, interested in immediate returns. They certainly invest far less than privately owned firms who can take a longer-term view.
But my answer to this would be to change the tax treatment of investment, and increase capital allowances so that there’s no disincentive to invest.
Labour’s answer, in contrast, is to forcibly transfer 10 per cent of all companies shares to create a sort of employee-ownership-at-gunpoint.
This is a terrible idea, which would make investment into the UK dry up overnight. After all, if government can steal ten per cent of your shares, what’s to stop them coming back for the rest? Labour protest that the shares are not being stolen – just given to the workers. But that’s a lie, as they also propose that a Labour-run Treasury would take the great majority of the dividends that those shares attract. At the moment, these are owned by savings and pension funds – so the money is ultimately coming out of your pocket.
The total value of the shares stolen by government would be around £300 billion, according to the Financial Times. For comparison, raising the basic rate of tax by one per cent raises £4.5 billion a year, so you can see what a vast tax grab this would be.
Forcing people to sell their properties at a price set by government, and control rents
There are major issues about the balance of rented and owner-occupied property in Britain. We had a long period when the number of properties being moved into the rent-to-buy sector was outstripping the number built, meaning owner occupation fell dramatically. Between 1996 and 2016, the home ownership rate among middle income people aged 25-34 fell from 65 per cent to 27 per cent.
However, in 2015 the Conservative Government reformed the tax treatment of rent to buy and second homes, and in the years since we have seen homeownership rebounding upwards, with both ownership and the rented sector growing in a more balanced way. There are lots more things we could do to grow home ownership.
Corbynista Labour doesn’t really believe in home ownership. They are nostalgic for the world of the 1970s, where around two thirds of households in places like Islington lived in social housing. But they know ownership is popular.
So they have announced the “private sector right to buy”. This will give private tenants the right to make their landlords sell their properties to them at a discount.
In an interview last week, John McDonnell made it clear that government would set the price: “You’d want to establish what is a reasonable price, you can establish that and then that becomes the right to buy,” he said. “You (the government) set the criteria. I don’t think it’s complicated.”
It’s not complicated. But it is deeply unfair. It would be a retrospective raid on people’s assets. People, including some who are not so rich, have invested in property under certain rules, and would have their savings ripped off them, while other people who invested their money in other things would not. This is arbitrary and unreasonable and would I’m sure be challenged in the courts.
Labour would also set rental prices, promising in a recent document that “There should be a cap on annual permissible rent increases, at no more than the rate of wage inflation or consumer price inflation (whichever is lower).”
This is unworkable or will lead to under investment in rented properties. Why spend lots doing up a flat if you can’t charge more for an improved property? We would quickly be heading back to the 1970s, when there wasn’t enough rented accommodation to go round, and conditions were squalid because of rent controls.
Sectoral wage bargaining
With the National Living Wage, the Conservatives have introduced one of the highest minimum wages in the world. For the lowest paid, the National Living Wage plus the cuts in taxes for lower paid people mean that they take home £4,500 more than they did under the last Labour Government – while employment has soared to a record high. We should be really proud of our record.
However, the National Living Wage is still set by an independent body, and as percentage of average pay in the market, so there is a sensible link to what businesses can afford without sacking people.
In contrast, under Labour politicians would just set rates directly. Labour have also pledged to “roll out sectoral collective bargaining”. Labour said it would “fix the going rate” in each industry and “set fair conditions” for the sector. This would represent an end to the system whereby unions negotiate company by company and, instead, give them power effectively to set national standards on pay and conditions. A new government unit would work with unions to bring firms into line.
This means that if politicians or trade unions decide your business is part of a particular “sector” (a pretty subjective question) then you would be in line for a change in wages which your business might simply be unable to afford. The scope for union bullying and endless court cases and demarcation disputes is obvious. In the car industry, wages are high, so a sectoral wage would be high. If I make plastic bits for the car industry but also other industries, is my business in or out of the automotive sector?
Rebecca Long Bailey has also said that “Labour will also legislate to reduce pay inequality by introducing an Excessive Pay Levy on companies with staff on very high pay.” There is no detail on what the rules will be, but the idea of having wages directly controlled by Jeremy Corbyn is likely to deter inward investment.
What do these ideas have in common?
When New Labour left office, a million people had been thrown on the dole, we’d had the deepest recession since the second world war and government was borrowing more than at any time in our whole peacetime history. In the final year alone, they borrowed £7,900 for every family in Britain.
And that was New Labour. Imaging what the country would look like after Corbyn and McDonnell.
Where Corbyn’s ideas really differ from previous Labour leaders is that he doesn’t really believe in the rule of law. Your house, your business, your savings: all these things don’t really belong to you, in Corbyn’s eyes: you have them only as long as the government suffers you to have them, and they can be retrospectively taken away if he sees fit. In the week Robert Mugabe died, we’ve seen underlined just how important the rule of law is. But under Corbynomics, it would be the first casualty.