Nick King: Luntz’s polling shows a crisis of confidence in capitalism. Here’s how we can change that.

8 Jul

Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies.

The recent survey work conducted by Dr Frank Luntz on behalf of the Centre for Policy Studies think tank was some of the most extensive ever undertaken in the UK. It is no surprise, then, that it has been the subject of media attention and scrutiny for days, with an array of organisations poring over its findings and implications.

Their attention has mainly been focused on the publics disillusionment with the political class, our increasing polarisation as a country and the rising division between the woke and the anti-woke.

Equally concerning, though less commented on, have been Luntzs findings in relation to capitalism, enterprise and business all of which, I am sorry to say, the public seem to take a pretty dim view of.

ConservativeHome readers might point out – when asked their opinion of British business – that our firms create jobs and opportunities, provide salaries to their employees, pay billions in taxes, are innovative and socially responsible. But Luntzs poll found that the associations that spring to mind for most people are about profit over people, tax avoidance or excessive CEO pay.

This cynicism was all the clearer when voters were asked what business and economic leaders care most about. The British public chose making as much money as possible for themselvesand using loopholes to pay as little in tax as possibleas their second and third most popular answers. Only making a profit for their companies and shareholderswas more frequently pointed to. But before anyone takes too much comfort from the publics familiarity with s172 of the Companies Act, I should point out that I am not sure that those polled meant it in a good way.

To those of us who are supportive of free and open markets, this rings serious alarms bells. Not least because it’s the latest example in a worrying trend. Similar notes of caution were struck by a report published this week by the Institute of Economic Affairs entitled Left Turn Ahead? It points to widespread distrust of business and capitalism among the young almost three quarters of whom think our current economic system fuels racism, greed and exploitation. Crucially, the report argued that this sentiment no longer diminishes with age.

Luntzs findings suggest that the British public has fallen out out of love with business and that they are not convinced its a cause worth fighting for. A majority of voters even agreed with the statement: “When I look at the corporate leaders and how they treat us, I just think ‘f*** them all’.” Although at least business executives can console themselves that they fared slightly better than the politicians.

I wholeheartedly disagree with such attitudes. Britain has so many great businesses, and it needs more of them. Businesses create the jobs and wealth and innovation that keep this country going.

But it is clear that if we going to convince the public to change their minds, we need to carefully consider the terrain on which we are fighting and the battles which will win the war. Here are some ideas:

First, as Luntz has consistently pointed out over his long and distinguished career, language matters. Capitalism is unpopular. But to many of capitalism’s advocates, terms like free enterprise and open markets can be used interchangeably with it – and other polling suggests these concepts are more favourably received. If a phrase is more appealing than capitalism to those who reject it as a concept, then it makes sense for those who believe in the benefits of this system to adopt the language which people more readily accept.

Second, we need link the benefits of the economic system to individuals’ lives and livelihoods in the most direct way possible. Those surveyed by Luntz and the CPS were clear that they prefer the term “employers” to “companies” (and both, overwhelmingly, to “corporations”), as well as “employees” to “workers”. This suggests they want a sense of participation and reciprocity – something which comes out more generally in the polling. Again, it makes sense to adopt this language and point out the symbiotic relationship between employers and employees as far as possible.

Third – and this is not something brought out in the survey – we should talk more about the sorts of businesses people are typically more supportive of. As previous work I have undertaken at the CPS demonstrates, people are far more positively inclined towards the sorts of small and family businesses which make up the vast majority of companies within the UK. When trying to convince people of the value of businesses we should “think small” wherever possible.

Finally, we need to remind people of the role businesses play in society. This is not a plea for businesses to publish well-intentioned but often meaningless ESG strategies. Nor is it a suggestion that businesses should demonstrate their right-on credentials – the British people left Luntz in no doubt that they did not want business leaders weighing in on culture wars. But it is a suggestion that we draw out the link between business and the things the British people care about all the more clearly.

When asked the fundamental purpose of the economy and presented with a dozen options, more than a third of those asked responded “to pay for public services like the NHS”. It might not be the purpose I would pick, but the British public are absolutely right to draw a link between businesses and the revenue needed for the proper running of our public services. So lets remind them of the link whenever we can.

All is not lost. Luntzs polling data also showed that most voters (especially Conservative ones) put a value on hard work and that they think success in this country is typically earned and deserved. But the survey presented a fascinating and sobering insight into the crisis of confidence in capitalism which this country faces. If we do not heed its lessons, we will be faced with a crisis not just in confidence, but in capitalism itself.

Nick King: Levelling up. The challenge is less defining it than delivering it, for which Johnson will need the private sector.

25 May

Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies.

To level up or not to level up? That is certainly not the question. If theres one thing the Government has been admirably clear about, it is its determination to do it. But that begs rather a lot of other legitimate questions, such as: what does levelling up really mean? How will we level up? What level are we levelling up to? How will levelling up be measured? And if answers to these questions are not forthcoming, how can we ever really know whether weve levelled up or not?

Some of these points were recently put to ministers from the Business and Housing departments by the Business Select Committee. The answers forthcoming were clearly not to the (Labour) Chair of the Committees satisfaction. He suggested there was no clarity in terms of understanding what levelling up means or the policy which sits behind it.

But there’s actually a strong argument – although you wouldn’t expect the ministers themselves to make it – that the lack of specificity around levelling up, and the catch-all nature of the term, have added to its value as a concept.

The Conservative Partys last general election manifesto talked about levelling up every part of the UK, levelling up skills and levelling up through investment in infrastructure. Prior to that manifesto, I produced a report for the Centre for Policy Studies, which called for greater devolution, enhanced skills, increased infrastructure investment and new Opportunity Zones as the principal means of levelling up.

Since the election, various other think tanks have put their own spin on levelling up, with Onwards taskforce looking at levelling up the tax system and innovation, the Centre for Progressive Policy developing its own Levelling Up Outlook, the Institute for Public and Policy Research suggesting we level up health, and Bright Blue looking at levelling up in the context of deprivation.

This all-encompassing nature of the phrase, not yet defined by any mainstream dictionary, is surely more of a strength than a weakness. We saw this during the election. Then, across the former ‘Red Wall’ seats of the Midlands and the North, people voted in their millions for levelling up, without needing a detailed policy prospectus outlining which departments would take the lead and what metrics they would apply. Yes, they wanted to ‘get Brexit done’ – but getting Brexit done was just one half of the equation to making their lives better: levelling up was the improvement that would come afterwards.

For all of its lack of explicit definition, those of us who are who committed to the levelling up cause – and I include myself in that number – feel we know what it’s aiming at. We know that at its heart it is about addressing the long-standing inequalities which exist in the United Kingdom.

Levelling up is about the life chances of people, the prospects of places and about making sure our country is the United Kingdom it should be, not the divided realm it risks becoming. In that spirit, it can be seen as a continuation of One Nation Toryism, of efforts to extend social mobility and even of various Governments rebalancing efforts.

Perhaps that is why, when Boris Johnson returned to Downing Street, having won his crushing majority in the election, he stood on the steps of Number 10 and promised to unite and level up’ our country. There followed measures such as substantial increases in infrastructure investment, the creation of the Towns Fund and, more recently, the creation of the Levelling Up Fund and the Community Renewal Fund. These all suggested a centrally-driven, targeted approach, relying on the funding of specific projects to level up specific places.

But the ambition to level up goes much wider and deeper than that. Ever since the election, every Government department has been tasked with thinking about levelling up and how to deliver it. In education, that means better schools and improved skills outside London and the South-East. For the Transport and Culture departments, that means greater national transport and digital connectivity respectively. For the Department of International Trade, it means getting more investment into the regions and more companies around the country exporting.

Now, to bring coherence and strategic intent to the levelling up agenda, the Government has promised a Levelling Up White Paper. This White Paper is to be produced by ConHome columnist, Harborough MP and the Prime Minister’s Levelling Up adviser, Neil OBrien. He is, in many respects, the perfect man for the job, with a first class brain and a long history of considering these issues, raised in the North but representing a Midlands constituency, and someone who knows his way around Whitehall.

This last point is critical given the clear intention to make this a ‘whole of government’ exercise. Virtually every department has been instructed to play its part in levelling up; the Prime Minister and the Chancellor recently put it at the heart of their Plan for Growth, and OBriens White Paper is being run out of Cabinet Office, suggesting an ambition to reach into various Whitehall departments.

He will, no doubt, have received direct orders from the Prime Minister as to what he wants in the White Paper and perhaps the slight shift in language within the Queen’s Speech gives us a clue as to what to expect. That speech promised to level up opportunities’ and the accompanying Briefing Note – prepared by the Treasury – tied the levelling up agenda much more closely to public services, such as health, education and policing. 

This suggests the Government will be looking as much at the opportunities presented to people, and within places, as the outcomes which those opportunities might lead to.For my part, the most important factor I would urge the Government to remember, is that whether we want to improve opportunities, or outcomes, levelling up needs to be centred on the potential of the private sector. As I argued in my recent Centre for Policy Studies paper with Jake Berry on rejuvenating the North, only the private sector can offer the scale of investment, the jobs and the opportunities which can lead to long-term sustainable change.

Government, of course, has a pivotal role to play. It needs to think about where it invests, about the implications of the gravitational pull of London and the South East and how it can best break the trend of self-perpetuating economic failure in the least successful parts of our country. But, most importantly, it can help create the conditions in which private enterprise can thrive.

After all, to business-loving, capitalism-supporting types like me, levelling up can only really be delivered through the dynamism of the private sector. It is its agility, investment and innovation through which life-changing opportunities will be created. Absent of that, levelling up will mean very little at all.  

Nick King: London is unlikely to have another “Big Bang” moment – but here’s how we can boost its potential post-Brexit

15 Jan

Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies

When Rishi Sunak was recently asked whether the UKs departure from the European Union meant we should revisit the Big Bang Playbook for the City of London, what choice was there but to agree? After all, what self-respecting neo-Thatcherite Chancellor of the Exchequer could say anything else when such an enticing proposition is dangled in front of them by a newspaper editor (in this case, Andy Silvester, of CityAM)?

But the world were living in is not that of the mid-80s. The EU, for all its faults, does not have the equivalent of the Restrictive Practices Act which Nigel Lawson – another political hero of the Chancellors – worked so hard to overturn. The idea of another Big Bang moment, the kind of sudden, overnight liberation which occurred on October 27, 1986, is unlikely to materialise.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t huge scope to use Brexit to boost the City, and the British economy – especially if we learn the right lessons from those Thatcher-era reforms.

As well as sweeping away anachronistic, inefficient practices, the Big Bang served to introduce three vital new operating principles to the City of London, turning it from a relatively sleepy, parochial industry into a global powerhouse. Those principles remain as valid today as they were in the 1980s.

The first was to open the City up to the world. For generations, the institutions of the City had been highly clubbable places, populated mainly by members of the British establishment. The Big Bang introduced competition – and global competition at that – which led to drastic changes in attitude and performance. In time, that led to London becoming one of the important financial hubs in the world alongside New York, in either first or second place for insurance, investment banking, asset management, FX trading and more.

Some worry that leaving the EU risks this preeminence. Certainly, ever since the Brexit vote, it has been clear that Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt (among others) have had more than one eye on the opportunity to knock London off its perch. Fortunately, for all the reports of 100,000+ jobs going, the impacts thus far have been limited. As one industry player put it to me, not even the Germans want to go to Frankfurt.

But the ability to access, and deploy, capital across the continent is clearly vital, and jeopardised by the fact we have left the European Single Market without a deal on services. It certainly does not make sense for the City to be regulated by Europe: given the relative size of our financial services industries, that would be the tail wagging the dog. But the Chancellor and the Treasury need to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding that allows us to continue to operate in, and cooperate with, the EU as soon as possible.

Yet we must also turn that challenge into an opportunity – to not just maintain but enhance the UKs status as a global centre for capital and financial services.

Our equity markets are already some of the deepest in the world. But we need to remain world-class and be able to finance the industries of tomorrow. The Listings Review, being undertaken by Lord Hill, is fully focused on achieving precisely that by making the regime more competitive.

Already it is estimated that the UK investment management industry manages some £10 trillion of assets. But again, we need to work harder to attract more capital from South America, the Middle East and South East Asia.

Attracting more capital – and talent – while continuing to build our reputation as a global centre for financial services should a central pillar of the Global Britain agenda.

The second principle from the Big Bang is proportionate regulation. Just as those reforms were predicated on, and driven by, regulation that works, we now need to make sure that our regulatory regime is one which supports rather than stifles our financial services industry – and which is tailored to our needs.

Coming out of the Single Market there are few voices clamouring for a bonfire of regulations in financial services. But at the same time, there is no point in sticking rigidly to a set of rules which dont necessarily work for us or our markets. Other authors on this site have, rightly, pointed to changes which should be made around the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive and the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II. The collapse of the financial advice industry, in particular, has been entirely been driven by overzealous, anti-competitive regulation.

Another set of regulations we should put in the crosshairs are the Basel capital requirements, which can treat a small bank or a building society in the same way as a large investment bank – which also damages competition by making it much harder for the new challenger banks to compete. By taking a more proportionate approach, and freeing up domestic lenders’ capital, UK regulators can create a more competitive market and immediately unlock more funding for domestic priorities like sustainability, net zero and levelling up. It is also striking that Britain’s regulators rarely have a duty to consider the growth impacts of their decisions: as George Osborne once said, we do not want the financial services industry to have the stability of the graveyard.

Proportionate regulation is linked to the third pillar that drove the Big Bang’s success: our absolute reliance on innovation. The reforms of the Thatcher era brought in new players, new instruments and new ways of doing things. That same willingness to embrace innovation is imperative if we are to thrive in the future.

Today, despite our world-leading fintech industry, much of the pioneering innovation in financial services happens in Singapore, Shanghai and other Asian markets. Industry insiders claim that an abundance of caution prevailsat the FCA. For all the successes of its innovation “sandbox” (a concept some claim was forced on it by Osborne), it is still not doing enough to support innovation or to open up new markets. These are issues I have written about before but those in the fintech industry tell me FCA authorisation still takes too long.

The tone for the regulators is set by the Treasury, of course – and the Treasury needs to back innovation now like never before. It must ensure its regulators lose the “gold plating” mentality of old, which has put us at a competitive disadvantage, and use the Future Regulatory Framework Review to help us capture the global opportunities which abound.

The fundamentals of our financial services industry remain strong, as the Chancellor himself said, but they cannot be taken for granted. Despite the fact we are blessed in our language, timezone, history and rule of law, the forces of competition are ever stronger – on the continent and beyond. To maintain London and the UKs preeminent status will take hard work and determination.

And that, I would argue, is the most important lesson of the Big Bang. The new entrants, innovation and subsequent global success came about because we had a government that was ready to back the industry as required. It was a Government that recognised that financial services, the profit motive and shareholder interest were fundamental goods – and spoke out on their behalf.

We might not be in line for another Big Bang but to help us make the most of Brexit we need the Government to be pro-business, pro-City and to offer financial services enduring political support. If those principles are in the Chancellors “Big Bank Playbook”, then sign me up.

Nick King: Johnson’s Reset. The Government needs business if it’s to build back better.

22 Nov

Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies

Much has been written in the last week, on this site and beyond, about what a Government ‘reset’ might look like, following Dom Cummings and Lee Cain’s departure from Number 10. Broadly. those perspectives have focused on what might be termed ‘the three Ps’ of positioning, people and policy.

In terms of positioning it has been argued that Number 10 needs to take a less confrontational approach – whether that is towards the media, public institutions or, indeed, Conservative backbenchers.

On people, the part played by the indomitable Carrie Symonds and the increasing importance of Allegra Stratton has been acknowledged, but the search continues for the right Chief of Staff to promote and protect Boris Johnson’s own interests.

The issue of policy is perhaps the least clear cut, with competing views espoused as to whether or not the Government can be the party of Workington as well as the party of Notting Hill. My own view is it can and it must.

But there is a final P which needs to be thrown into the mix – not as a fourth horseman, but as a corollary of the three Ps – and that is the private sector.

The fact is that British business is at a low ebb right now, in terms of performance, confidence and its relationship with Government. Covid-19 is the most obvious explanatory factor for those first two issues – forcing millions of businesses up and down the country to close will take the wind out of their sails however generous the set of support packages provided. But introducing those measures only serves to make the job of working constructively with British business all the more important for government. On this task, it has been found wanting.

Across industries, sectors and different parts of the country, there has been consternation and confusion as different restrictions have been introduced, without any (published) economic analysis of the potential impacts or of the evidence base upon which these decisions have been made.

As we approach December 3rd, businesses remain in the dark about whether or not they might be able to reopen, despite the long lead times needed for various parts of the hospitality sector in particular (a sector whose import will perhaps never be as keenly felt as it will be in December 2020).

That businesses don’t feel like the Government supports them is hardly new news, however. Successive polls commissioned by my think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, has shown that a clear majority of small businesses don’t think that the Government is on their side. Indeed, the Government’s own survey data shows that only a quarter of businesses think government understands business well enough to regulate it. But in the context of a national economic shutdown, this is simply not good enough.

This is not to say there aren’t people around Government who understand business, or who are keen to support it. Rishi Sunak, Alok Sharma, their political teams and Departments are obviously on businesses’ side, as is Ed Lister and Alex Hickman’s business relations team in Number 10. But the disregard of other influential figures towards business has meant that much of the private sector has failed to get a proper hearing throughout 2020.

The anticipated ‘reset’ is an opportunity for the Johnson administration to put that right. Which duly brings us back to our three Ps.

On positioning, the Government needs to be unapologetically pro-business, free enterprise and open markets. The Conservative Party must defend the role of enterprise and the private sector and be resolutely on the side of the millions of small business owners up and down the country. This is important ground both ideologically and politically – and ground which the Conservative Party is in danger of ceding if it isn’t more full-voiced in its support for business.

In terms of people, Andrew Griffith and Neil O’Brien’s recent appointments are welcome, and will help emphasise the role of business, but change is needed in Number 10 itself. A Chief of Staff with extensive private sector experience would be welcome but, failing that, an understanding and sympathetic attitude towards enterprise should be regarded as a sine qua non. Just as important is for Number 10 to have a strong and expert voice for business sitting within its policy unit. That there has not been a business policy function sitting within the policy unit since David Cameron was Prime Minister is extraordinary – the existing business relations team needs to be strengthened and given a proper policy role.

Which brings us onto the final P of policy, which is the most important of ‘the three Ps’. Positioning and people are all well and good, but fine words doth butter no parsnips, as they say – so Johnson needs to ensure his Government is putting business front and centre as he looks to build back better.

Post-pandemic, securing growth is the only game in town. Without that there is no hope of new jobs, greater opportunities or improved living standards – whether in Workington or Notting Hill. And none of this can be achieved without unleashing the awesome and dynamic power of the private sector.

An important starting point would be to curtail the steadily increasing regulatory burden on business. Each measure, taken on its own merits, seems important and its impact trivial to business. But the corrosive, drip-drip effect takes its toll and as growth flatlines and productivity stagnates, politicians stand with their hands on their hips, double teapoting, wondering why.

Take the recent HFSS (foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt) consultation for example – likely to cost British industry hundreds of millions of pounds. No doubt full of noble intent, but hardly what the economic doctor might order as we look to recover post-pandemic.

More worrying still are the suggestions that we will increase both the rates and the scope of business and enterprise taxes in 2022. This is no way to stimulate and incentivise the businesses who are our only way out of the economic morass in which we find ourselves. Rather than clipping its wings, the Government should provide the wind to help business soar.

Speaking of wind power, the vital role of the private sector was clear in the Prime Minister’s 10 point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. But the truth is that few of his priorities can be achieved without the business community. Levelling up? It requires business investment and private sector jobs in the North and the Midlands. Net zero? Industry needs to transition and innovate our way towards it. Protect the Union? Champion our British businesses and demonstrate our reliance on the free flow of goods and access to important markets both north and south of the border. Global Britain? Remain open to inward investors and get more companies exporting.

Pfizer, BioNTech and other companies have all too ably demonstrated just why we need the private sector recently – it’s the key to solving so many of our problems. Which is why Boris Johnson needs to put it front and centre through his reset exercise.

A reformed Number Ten must get on the front foot with business relations and business policy. It needs to articulate a clear vision of our post-Brexit future, rooted in entrepreneurship, investing in success, focused on innovation, with a skilled workforce, trading with the world and built off the back of our brilliant SMEs. That’s a reset worth waiting for.