It’s not as easy as you might think to determine how many of its 1997 promises to business Labour has honoured. Some of them, such as to ‘work for a system of international trade that is open, fair and sustainable’, were pure motherhood and apple pie in the first place.
Others, such as a pledge to tackle late payers, were specific but have proved ineffective in reality. Charging interest on an overdue invoice – part of Labour’s ‘tough action’ – is a great way to lose a customer.
Labour headlined its 1997 business manifesto with ‘five early pledges to business’. So how has it performed?
- ‘Set tough rules for government spending and borrowing; ensure low inflation and strengthen the economy so that interest rates are low.’
A good start. Gordon Brown stuck to the previous Tory government’s spending targets more tightly than former chancellor Kenneth Clarke admitted he would have done.
Result: government spending as a proportion of GDP down from 41.2% in 1996/97 when Labour came to power to a projected 39.7% in 2001/02.
Inflation has stayed low – but it was falling under the previous government. So credit there for maintaining rather than starting a trend.
Brown’s first major decision – to give the Bank of England power to set interest rates independently – reassured the markets. After an upward blip earlier in the parliament, rates are now on the way back down.
But ambivalence over the euro (see below) has strengthened sterling – and further undermined UK manufacturing.
Overall mark: 8/10
- ‘Establish a central role for Britain in a Europe that is outward-looking and anti-protectionist.’
Not such a strong record. In fact, pretty hopeless. On the key issue of British membership of the euro, Tony Blair has funked it. He’s been squeezed between tabloid hatred of things European and Gordon Brown’s vague but menacing euro tests.
The most important of these – sustainable convergence between the British and euro economies – is now closer than at any time in the past ten years. Yet support for a single currency (only 18% for a yes vote in the latest poll) is lower than ever. Blair has ignored the case for the euro.
Overall mark: 2/10
- ‘Raise standards in all our schools and promote new opportunities for people at work to learn new skills.’ A plethora of initiatives – literacy hours, numeracy targets, smaller class sizes for five to seven-year-olds (at the cost of larger classes for other kids).
At secondary level, the government wants at least 20% of pupils at all schools getting five A*-C grades at GCSE by 2004. Numbers are rising but it?s hard to see the target being met by schools in deprived areas.
Critics say that exams are getting easier, but others point to the fact that sixth formers have to work longer to gain passes in the new AS exams. Will all this lead to a better educated workforce for business? Possibly, but don’t bet on any short-term results.
Overall mark: 6/10
- ‘Promote the interests of small business, improving their access to financial backing, more effective information and support services and taking tough action on late payment.’
The government can point to a whole raft of measures – annual instead of quarterly VAT returns, tax relief on share options to help firms keep key staff, tax credits for research, creation of a Small Business Service.
Much of this is helpful, but it’s outweighed by new red tape. Great scarlet tangles of it. Measures such as the working time directive, national minimum wage and parental leave directive have sent the Chantrey Vellacott ‘red tape index’ soaring more than 20% since Labour came to office.
Overall mark: 4/10
- ‘A new partnership between government and business to improve Britain’s competitiveness, including a revitalised private finance initiative to renew Britain’s infrastructure.’
Relationships between Labour ministers and business grandees have never been closer. Sometimes not always helpfully (see the Hinduja brothers). At best, business organisations, such as the CBI, are luke-warm about Blair and Co.
The PFI has certainly been revitalised – 150 projects worth £12bn since 1997. But accountants point out that PFI is expensive. Which is why industry doesn’t use it.
Overall mark: 5/10
- Grand total: 25/50 Whether you think this means the government’s cup of promises is half empty or half full depends on your point of view.