Less than ten years ago, the most frequently seen symbol at the Conservative Party’s conference was the torch of liberty and free enterprise. The Party’s self image was entirely based around a small state that encouraged people to set up and grow their own businesses and to develop a stake in the economy via home and share ownership.
How times change. While there’ll be dozens of fringe meetings at Manchester’s conference where politicians and activists talk about the Party’s commitment to the free market, this isn’t where the party’s leadership is focused. Within the party, policies of the free market feel old school – and the language associated with it even more so.
Over the last decade, the Conservatives have steadily made it harder for people to develop and grow their own stake in the economy. As it stands, for most prospective entrepreneurs there’s little financial advantage in taking a risk to do their own thing as opposed to staying on PAYE.
The announcement that employers will have to pay yet higher National Insurance Contributions was only the most recent cost the Conservatives have added to businesses. It followed an increase in Corporation Tax, higher taxes on dividend payments (the method by which most business owners pay themselves), higher contributions for employees’ pensions, and of course a much higher minimum wage. There remains talk of higher taxes on private pension contributions, as well as on Capital Gains Tax.
However, arguably the clearest sign the Conservatives’ torch of free enterprise has been extinguished is the party’s lack of interest in defending the gig economy, which is slowly being regulated to death by the courts and left-leaning governments as Conservatives stand by largely inactive.
I should declare an interest here: Public First has worked for a number of businesses in the gig economy, including Uber. I try to avoid commercial comment on these pages, but I find the attitude towards the gig economy from the Party mystifying – and it’s an important aspect of this trend against business.
In a recent opinion research project we undertook for Uber, we spoke to both drivers and the general public about their attitudes towards their work in the gig economy. The theme that came out – endlessly – was the great benefit of flexibility: drivers value flexibility in the workplace three times as much as the general public and we found drivers more satisfied with their working life than the general public. (This is, of course, on top of the benefits consumers have enjoyed).
It’s a role which is a world away from the 9-5, PAYE life that most follow. Some drivers clearly thrive on the flexibility their job offers; others simply require it because of the nature of their lives (eg childcare or other caring responsibilities); others might need a flexible income to fit around study; others might be waiting for their dream job to materialise.
Either way, it’s a role that Conservatives should be encouraging, not dismissing while they consider which taxes to raise next.
It’s not just Uber. The businesses in the gig economy that have grown in the last several years are massively expanding the opportunities for ordinary people to do their own thing in the economy – opportunities that, for most, would never ordinarily arise. They are engines of the free market but the Conservatives have been slow to defend them.
In recent times, the Conservatives have rightly pivoted to working :class voters and they’re actively trying to raise living standards outside the prosperous South East. These are things I’ve been encouraging on these pages for several years now. But amid the pivot, Conservatives have lost this zeal for free enterprise – as if it was somehow in conflict with their new strategy.
But no such conflict exists. On the contrary, free enterprise can and should be at the heart of the Government’s levelling up agenda. After all, those of us that contribute to the debate above and below the line on these pages surely all agree that it’s free enterprise – and the creation and growth of many new businesses – that will ultimately spread wealth across the country. Support for the gig economy should go hand in hand.