Politics: It’s a funny old game

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Is there anything more off-putting to people outside the Westminster Bubble than witnessing the carnival of party conference season? If you don’t support a party, you’ll be as perplexed as an ornithologist at the Manchester derby. Everywhere you turn, discussions rage about the latest transfer news with rumours of the latest Conservative MPs to migrate to Ukip, and tactics discussed in intricate detail about how to defeat the opposition. You’ll even hear chanting: “Five more years!”

The football analogy can only be stretched so far though. While support for football clubs remains as popular as ever, people are becoming less interested in political parties – at least the top three:

“Membership of the three main political parties is at a historic low: less than 1% of the UK electorate is now a member of the Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat Party, compared to 3.8% in 1983. Latest estimates suggest that the Conservative Party claimed 134,000 members, the Labour Party 190,000 and the Liberal Democrat Party 44,000.”

And don’t expect this to change any time soon: Less than a third of young people express interest in politics, according to a recent ONS survey. It found that only 31% of 16 to 24-year-olds were fairly or very interested in the subject.

This decrease in interest in established parties and politics is offset by one trend though – a growing interest in small parties:

“[M]embership of smaller, often nationalist parties has risen markedly since the new millennium. In June 2014 membership of the UK Independence Party was around 39,000; in September 2014 membership of the Scottish National Party was around 64,000; in December 2013 membership of the Green Party was around 14,000. Though none of these parties can claim to equal either the Conservatives or Labour in size, their rise nonetheless represents a notable change in the make-up of the UK’s political landscape.”

There is plenty wrong with all major political parties, but there is a lot more wrong with these smaller parties. Ukip represents the worst of Little Englanders and the SNP the worst of Little Scotlanders. The Green Party has a more international outlook, but one in which the entire globe returns to a utopic state of nature; a time where our lives were very nasty, very brutish and all too short.”

In the long run, I don’t think this matters very much. In Britain, our lives – from money to morals – will increasingly become disconnected from political decisions. The next generation is more open to others doing what makes them happy, while Bitcoin and blockchain technology offers the prospect of capital accumulation and exchange without the state. This, in part, might be why so few young people care about politics. But whether or not tolerance and tech trumps politics, we have a few elections between now and then; elections where the result will greatly impact the wealth and happiness of us all.

So what can be done? You don’t necessarily need to rush out and join a political party, but I think we would benefit from smarter, more open-minded people in politics and the policy process. For example, we know immigration is a hot topic, but we should also know that removing all barriers to migration throughout the world is calculated to increase global GDP by between 67% and 147.3%. This isn’t going to happen, but it should be the sort of data to inspire a generation. Perhaps not Steven Woolfe’s generation though; Ukip’s spokesman on migration and financial affairs thinks we should cap net immigration at 50,000 per year.

It might not be rational or feel particularly empowering to vote but occasional elections aren’t the only way of engaging in politics and policy. For example, if you’re a student on a gap year, you could apply to work for the Adam Smith Institute.

The game of politics isn’t always beautiful but the key players influence the result – even if they aren’t sitting in the House of Commons.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

The visa and the sausage

The policy making process is a messy business. It is widely and fairly quoted that “laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” Think tanks sit at the very start of the policy process – writing recipes for politicians to feed to the public (as well as writing recipes for the public to feed to politicians). However, polices can become adulterated as they are funnelled through the sausage machine of government.

Some policies are just bad ideas – such as the creeping reintroduction of incomes policies, which dramatically and unequivocally failed in the 1970s – but some good policies fail in their implementation. At least one is failing because nobody knows it exists: the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa for tech.

As Sam Shead explains at TechWorld:

As part of an effort to get more of the world’s best tech entrepreneurs and software engineers to come to the UK, prime minister David Cameron announced last December that the government was going to allow Tech City UK to endorse 200 of the 1000 slots. At the time, Cameron said more overseas talent was needed if the UK wanted to overcome the skills gap that exists in the tech sector.

The Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa should be a fast-track for tried and tested entrepreneurs to enter the UK, but even order ativan online overnight though Tech City UK has been free to endorse entrepreneurs since April, the policy is struggling to get off the ground.

The failure is largely the result of so few people knowing the visa route even exists. I’ve spoken with plenty of entrepreneurs, recruiters and lawyers – all of whom are needed to make this policy work in practice. Most haven’t heard of this visa route and none has the information required to understand the process. There is plenty of blame to go around but Tech City UK and UKTI probably deserve the brunt of it.

The failure of the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa tech demonstrates how government departments and quangos are falling short in their job of communicating policy to so-called stakeholders (for want of a better word). We can’t rely on MPs to spread the word. In a recent poll commissioned by The Entrepreneurs Network it was discovered that they are largely ignorant of current policies to support entrepreneurs.

Based upon the evidence (and my cosmopolitan biases), fiddling with the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa doesn’t go nearly far enough in liberalising the immigration system. But before this great battle of ideas is won – which will encompass cultural as well as economic clashes – every failing policy is a setback.

Small firms, giant leaps, and the elephant in the room

IPPR has recently released a detailed and thought-provoking report. In Small Firms, Giant Leaps, Spencer Thompson considers the contribution small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have made to Britain’s economic recovery since the financial crisis and the role they could play over the coming years – specifically in getting more people back into work. Small Firms, Giant Leaps suggests some sensible reforms that this Government should take seriously, but it falls short of dealing with the real problem; a problem so much discussed and so obvious that its mere mention is liable to induce a collective yawn: too much complex regulation.

As the report makes clear, SMEs have contributed enormously to the labour market recovery since the financial crisis – 84% of jobs growth between the start of 2010 and the start of 2013 came from SMEs: “Overall employment rose by 1.5 million between the start of 2010 and the start of 2013. Of this, 1.2 million was in enterprises with 0–249 employees. Given that they only account for two-thirds of total employment, it is clear that SMEs are disproportionately driving the jobs recovery.”

The report suggests four policies for using SMEs to the end of creating “full employment” (defined as 80% of the workforce). I’ll first consider two through four.

The second recommendation is to retain and reform statutory sick pay recovery. Obviously, businesses are less likely to hire workers who have a higher risk of getting sick and not turning up to work, and this is more weighty burden for smaller businesses. Thompson suggests targeting current support towards individuals that face the greatest sickness-related hiring risks and only making this available to small firms (those with an annual NICs liability of less than £45,000). It is estimated that this reform would cost just over £20 million, which is good deal less than the £50 million currently spent on statutory sick pay recovery.

The third recommendation is to intermediate labour markets in welfare-to-work policy: “Providers under the next iteration of the Work Programme should be allowed and encouraged to act as a temporary employment agency for claimants in particular groups, securing short-term paid work placements with employers.” The fourth recommendation is for an occupational benefit insurance scheme for SMEs. Thompson calls on employer associations – such as the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce – to work with insurers to help SMEs club together to offer occupational sick, maternity and paternity pay to their employees.

The first recommendation is less convincing and gets us to the nub of the problem. Thompson calls for more business support for new employers and existing micro and small businesses. The problem is easily identified: “those not large enough to employ a dedicated HR professional and unable to afford the cost of external support have to navigate through an often complex system of employment law and labour market regulation.” The solution, according to Thompson, is to give up to £1,000 in support and services.

Rather than setting up yet another scheme to navigate the complex regulation, the Government should exempt small businesses from as much of the labyrinthine system of employment law and labour market regulations as is feasible. Since 2001, the Government has been committed to exempting microbusiness from upcoming “burdensome” new regulations. The logical conclusion is to exempt them from existing burdens too. For those who suggest that this can’t be done, just consider that in 2012 the Government exempted hundreds of thousands of low-risk workplaces from health and safety inspections.

Information is certainly important for SMEs – the chopping of Business Link and the various changes since then must have done significant harm – but by their own reckoning regulation is the key reason SMEs aren’t hiring more. As is shown in the Figure 2.1 (page 33) of the report (see below), when asked in an FSB poll about the barriers to taking on more staff, only 5% of SMEs said it was “not finding the appropriate information”, while 32% said it was a “fear of litigation/employment tribunals”, 30% “employment law/regulations”, 16% “other regulations”, and 14% “administrative burden”.

FSB chart

Some may suggest that SMEs fears are unfounded, but the 321,800 claims accepted by employment tribunals in 2011/12 suggest that the hesitancy is based on real and present dangers. One of the costs of regulations designed to protect the currently employed is that it restrict access to those on the margins of labour markets. If your goal is 80% employment, then, whether you like it or not, deregulation is the most powerful weapon in your armoury.