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Whose side are you on?

“We are on the side of economic growth”, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer responded to climate activists as they attempted to disrupt the announcement of policies linked to Labour’s fifth mission: breaking down barriers to opportunities. With a difficult economic backdrop and more tightening to come, it was telling that Sir Keir used the campaigners’ interruption not to address their agenda, but to highlight Labour’s support for business and investment.

In a room packed with students, teachers, union heads, and climate activists, Starmer revealed the fifth and final of the party’s “missions” which, he says, are the building blocks upon which an incoming Labour government would legislate. I was invited to the official launch held at Mid Kent College in Gillingham yesterday morning and stood behind the podium as he delivered his speech.

Over the last few weeks, Starmer and the Shadow Cabinet team have travelled across the country laying out the case for each of these missions. They are (in order of announcement):

  1. Secure the highest sustained growth in the G7.
  2. Make Britain a green energy superpower.
  3. Build an NHS fit for the future.
  4. Make Britain’s street safe.
  5. Break down barriers to opportunity at every stage.

The Guardian’s Peter Walker suggested that yesterday’s announcement, along with the other missions, represent what are in fact some “radical” policies, but carried out in a sensible and reliable manner. Indeed, they are the culmination of Labour’s continued efforts to present themselves as a government in waiting. Starmer’s comment to the climate activists was arguably no surprise. His mission speeches have been littered with references to the importance of business and investment. For business, they provide a variety of avenues through which to engage.

The fifth mission, branded as “opportunity”, contains Labour’s key principles for education policy. Starmer’s speech focused heavily on what he termed the “class ceiling”: the barriers to opportunity which Labour suggest the Conservatives have done little to address. After saying that the Conservatives have “given up” on education policy, Starmer announced that an incoming Labour government would review the national curriculum and include creative arts or sports education until students are sixteen with a review of the way that digital skills are taught.

We are on the side of economic growth

Keir Starmer Labour leader

His pledge that Labour would form a new national body – “Skills England” – to provide more access to post-19 training and introduce a National Skills Plan will be welcomed by businesses who have voiced frustrations at the current government’s apprenticeship levy, the terms of which they have argued in fact prevents them from investing in vocational careers. Starmer’s speech also contained a promise to reform Ofsted and re-iterated the flagship policy of removing tax breaks for private schools to unlock new funding to invest in speech and language classes and hire 6,500 more teachers in shortage subjects.

These are, to many, uncontroversial policies. Starmer avoided making any announcements on tuition fees, high education funding, and teacher’s pay and refused to be drawn into a discussion about the ongoing strikes. Though they do represent the tightrope that Labour is walking – at once attempting to be the party of business and innovation, and also the party of its roots. The policy announcements show Starmer’s attempt to marry the two.

But this has become a hallmark of the Starmerite style. Only intervening where necessary, being exceedingly realistic about the challenges that lie ahead, and managing expectations. He matches the Prime Minister’s steady, quiet progress, not seeking dramatic flair. If the intention from both leaders is to stick to the slow lane, they must out-do one another on policy. While standing on the podium as he gave his speech, it struck me that Labour might have that edge.

By Edward Holtom, Consultant

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London listings, Rayner’s Labour and VAT’s back

Policy Preview: London Listings
“The world clings to its old mental picture of the stock market because it’s comforting; because it’s so hard to draw a picture of what has replaced it; and because the few people able to draw it for you have no interest in doing so.” Michael Lewis

The London Stock Exchange (LSE) has had a turbulent past few years. European regulators blocked its merger with Deutsche Börse in 2017 for the third time, and though it pivoted to a data provider model with the purchase of Refinitiv in January, the LSE’s own share price has struggled.

While the business model of competing with other data providers will likely prove significant to the LSE’s long-term prospects, some of the poor performance the exchange has seen in recent years is due to a slowdown in new listings, partially due to Brexit uncertainty and partially due to the LSE lagging other major exchanges in innovation. 2021, however, has shown the signs of a turnaround are already in place – with more 50% listings in the first six months of 2021 than in all of 2020.

Arguably the most significant LSE listing this year – in terms of its own business model – was the July trading debut of the fintech firm Wise, which specialises in international monetary transfers. Notably, the listing was not an IPO but rather a direct listing in which existing shares are entered into the market rather than new issuance as typically occurs in the former. Such listings, which typically enable existing investors to cash out more quickly, have grown in popularity in the US tech sector in recent years but the LSE had heretofore largely been reticent.

Wise’s debut was seen as a success and the firm is now the largest in the UK tech space by market capitalisation. London has prided itself on developing a wider fintech scene in recent years and there are a number of other expected listings, such as those of challenger bank Revolut or payments firm Klarna, that the LSE will be keen to secure.

To that end, last November the UK government launched a review of its listing regime, with a split emerging between advocates of continued high regulatory standards and those in favour of loosening listing rules, in particular to attract fintech listings. The LSE seems to have firmly come down on the side of the latter, most emphatically the requirement that a minimum of 25% of a firm’s shares be sold in an initial listing. It also gave softer backing to calls to allow firms with dual class shares to be treated as ‘premium listings’ and thus eligible for the FTSE 100 index. For example, Wise’s CEO Kristo Käärmann has enhanced voting rights shares, meaning Wise will not enter the FTSE 100.

These rules are overseen by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which is conducting its own review, off of which it has proposed reducing the free float requirement to as little as 10%, and to allow certain forms of dual class share structures to be included as ‘premium listings’. An overhaul of listing rules along these lines is likely to be signed off by year’s end.

Power Play: Rayner’s Labour
“Finding the right alchemy that will woo the older and socially conservative voters of the Red Wall whilst keeping on board the younger, more educated, and socially liberal voters elsewhere has become Labour’s quest for the Holy Grail.” Professor Eunice Goes

Angela Rayner’s position of prominence is secure within the Labour Party. Following its disappointing results in the early May elections, Keir Starmer and his allies attempted to side-line her, failing when Rayner refused to accept what she regarded as a significant demotion. Instead, with backing from party allies, she negotiated retaining her position as Deputy Leader and exchanging her roles as party chair and national campaign coordinator for positions as Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and a newly-created post of Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work.

This is symptomatic of two things – firstly, Keir Starmer’s weakness at the head of the party, unable to reshape his frontbench to his liking. Secondly, it demonstrates that the left-of-centre, though less radical than the left under Jeremy Corbyn, still has some residual strength within Labour. For the time being, Rayner is able to stay in position as Deputy Leader, consolidating her own power base.

What does this mean for Labour? The party’s attention will soon be turning to the next general election, which could come as soon as May 2023. Labour will be keen to stem the flow of so-called ‘red wall’ voters deserting Labour. Some within the party may feel that as a Stockport-born former trade unionist, Angela Rayner may be better able to connect with voters across the North of England and the Midlands than Sir Keir Starmer QC.

There may not be much time for Labour to effectively set out their message, if the election is just two years away. A non-trivial proportion of that time will still be politically dominated by the pandemic, and Labour will need to offer a positive vision of the future, rather than criticise the government’s perceived failings during the pandemic.

The party will continue to position itself as tough on crime and social issues, playing to Starmer’s prosecutorial experience. The Conservatives will always be more credible on law-and-order issues, however, and Labour will need to seek to shift the economic debate onto terms in which it is most comfortable.

Rather than being painted as the party of fiscally irresponsible tax-and-spend, in her newly appointed brief handling the Future of Work Rayner will seek to frame the nature of the post-pandemic recovery as being an opportunity for more socially-just economy rebalanced towards workers. We have already seen the beginnings of this with pledges for a ‘new deal for workers’, with Rayner calling for an enshrined right for workers to work from home.

Although the Opposition’s policy influence is necessarily limited, we can expect Labour to continue to influence policy debates by positioning itself as more socially conservative yet with an economic policy characterised by more targeted interventions in the interests of workers.

Dollars and Sense: VAT’s Back

“Happiness is not in money but in shopping”

Marilyn Monroe

Since the start of 2021, the United Kingdom no longer offers tourists and visitors refunds to the value added tax (VAT) that they pay on UK bought goods. Formerly known as the Retail Export Scheme, similar VAT refunds are available across the European Union and they have proved a boon to growth for big retailers.

Such refunds not only bring in tourist spending – helping drive the development of commercial shopping centres such as the UK’s Bicester Village – but also have provided a fresh income stream to retailers and logistics businesses, who typically take a small portion of the refund in exchange for handling the relevant paperwork. The end of the Retail Export Scheme will not totally end this business, as UK exports shipped directly abroad will still be VAT-free.

Yet certain retailers are likely to be particularly impacted, from famous London outlets that have long been magnets for tourism to the smaller luxury stores and shopping centres in Manchester that have seen high-end spending driven by VAT-free purchases from tourists largely from India, the Middle East and China, in recent years.

The COVID-19 pandemic, resulting lockdowns, and travel limitations have far overridden the impact of the VAT refund’s abolition on retail. However, as the post-pandemic recovery continues and travel slowly opens up with the rollout of global vaccinations efforts, the VAT refund scheme’s abolition risks seeing the UK retail recovery lag behind that of other sectors and even retail in Europe.

Yet the government has so far shown no signs that it plans to reinstate the Retail Export Scheme, or some variety thereof. Simply put, foreign tourists are not a particularly politically salient constituency and the government is wary of being seen as handing valuable tax receipts to retailers in a post-pandemic environment.

Nonetheless, a potential middle ground with benefits to all exists – the digitisation of tax receipts raises the possibility of reinstating at least certain refunds for goods whose export status can thereby more easily be verified. The government has put tech at the forefront of other customs arguments – recently raising the idea again in relation to policing the Irish border – similar arguments about the future of UK retail recovery follow naturally.

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Jess Phillips, Labour Party MP on support of alienated voters and the role all businesses can play in supporting their employees who may be suffering from domestic violence

Following the poor performance of the Labour Party’s recent election results and the subsequent botched reshuffle, the direction of the Party remains very uncertain. Jess Phillips, Labour Party MP and Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding, spoke to Hawthorn’s Sarah Sands on Tuesday 18th May.

Author of three books, including the Sunday Times Bestseller, ‘Truth to Power’ and the forthcoming ‘Everything you need to know about being an MP’, Jess is known as being one of Westminster’s most outspoken MPs. She spoke about how the party can win back the support of alienated voters as well as discussing the role all businesses can play in protecting and supporting their employees who may be suffering from domestic violence.

Listen to the replay of Sarah Sands in conversation with Jess Phillips, MP.

Jess Phillips is a Labour Party politician who became the MP for the constituency of Birmingham Yardley at the 2015 general election. Jess has committed her life to improving the lives of others, especially the most vulnerable. Before becoming an MP, Jess worked for Women’s Aid in the West Midlands developing services for victims of domestic abuse, sexual violence, human trafficking and exploitation. She became a councillor in 2012, in this role she worked tirelessly to support residents, with her work being recognised when she became Birmingham’s first ever Victims Champion. Since becoming an MP, Jess has continued her fight to support those who need it the most and has earned a reputation for plain speaking since being elected, unfazed by threats and calling out sexist attitudes as she promotes women’s rights. Jess has written two bestselling books ‘Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking The Truth’ and ‘Truth to Power: 7 Ways to Call Time on BS’.

Sarah Sands, Board Director at Hawthorn. Sarah joined Hawthorn from the BBC, where she was editor of the Today programme, Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme. She was previously editor of the London Evening Standard, the first woman to edit The Sunday Telegraph and deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph. Sarah is Chair of the Gender Equality Advisory Council for G7 for 2021 and of the political think tank Bright Blue. She is also a Board Member of London First and Index on Censorship and is a Patron of the National Citizen Service.

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Crypto, leverage and regulation, a red star rising? Paris’ role in china’s lending

Policy preview: crypto, leverage and regulation
“Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve” Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakomoto

The age of cryptocurrencies appears to be well and truly upon us: 2021 has seen crypto-exchange Coinbase enter public markets at a market cap of roughly US$85 billion, in line with the market cap of HSBC; the cryptocurrency Ethereum which is positioned as building bloc for a host of digital applications is up some 450% year-to-date as of 12 May, and even the Bank of England Governor, Andrew Bailey, has been forced to discuss their value in a recent press conference. Bailey warned that cryptocurrencies “have no intrinsic value” and said punters should “buy them only if you’re prepared to lose all your money”.

Crypto-evangelists would surely disagree, but Bailey’s comments raise an important consideration for the market that must be considered – who assumes its liquidity risk – as crypto-currencies increasingly enter the main stream. Most crypto-currencies – and certainly the most prominent pair, Ethereum and Bitcoin – are marketed as decentralised and outside of financial regulators’ control . Many supporters argue that central bank officials like Bailey are so critical of cryptocurrencies precisely because of this, and passionately believe that the fact cryptocurrencies exist outside the traditional monetary system is a feature, not a bug.

While it is outside the scope of this column to argue the merits and criticisms of the arguments for cryptocurrencies, their recent stratospheric growth means that it behooves investors, regulators, and market participants to consider the risks of a cryptocurrency collapse. Bitcoin notched a market capitalisation of some US$1.12 trillion this April, up from $160 billion last April, growth of 700% – if it experiences a similar spurt of growth at any stage, it would reach a market cap of nearly US$8 trillion – larger than all of the US stimulus spending since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic by a considerable margin – and nearly 10 times the US’ 2008 bailout.

Cryptocurrencies’ volatility is well known; and the amount of liquidity available to even the least practiced of traders has received increasing attention in recent months, particularly in light of the market activity around GameStop, which even resulted in a Congressional hearing in mid-February. Whether or not cryptocurrencies are truly independent of other monetary regulation, at their current levels of growth – and given the traditional financial institutions involved in enabling the leverage supporting this – they are becoming systemic.

Regulators may not like crypto-currencies and crypto-enthusiasts may not like regulators, but if they continue to ignore one another, the level of systemic risk will only continue to grow. If it does, and central bankers like Bailey are ultimately proven correct – or even if there is a market crash again as witnessed in 2018 – the pain will be felt far beyond the crypto corner of the financial markets.

Dollars and sense: Paris’ role in China’s lending
“Paris isn’t a city, it’s a world” King Francis I

At the end of March, the College of William & Mary’s AidData research lab, the Kiel Institute for World Economy and the Peterson Institute for International Economics published what is arguably the most extensive examination of Chinse loan contracts with foreign governments around the world, simply titled “How China Lends”. Beijing’s use of credit to drive investment into markets ranging from the frontiers of Zambia to central European infrastructure to Chilean mines has garnered significant attention in recent years, particularly after the formal launch of its ‘Belt and Road’ policy in 2017, though Beijing has itself largely ceased to use the phrase. This has increasingly led to accusations of ‘debt trap diplomacy’ in Western coverage, amplified by concerns over Beijing’s own holdings of Western debt.

Yet Beijing is too often described as an emerging player when the reality is that it has now been the key global creditor for over a decade. Already by 2010, China’s official government lending was well in excess of the World Bank’s lending, and Chinese lenders demonstrated a willingness to lend to frontier markets well before Western investors got comfortable with them. While this has led to a number of headaches for Beijing, particularly in Angola and Venezuela, it is only in the aftermath of COVID-19 that China’s lending policies have the potential to upend international capital systems.

Among the most striking revelation in the AidData report is the fact that China’s loans to many emerging markets include clauses requiring them to refuse requests to take the loans to the Paris Club, an informal international institution that includes every major Western government and which aims to facilitate sovereign debt restructurings by working together to agree terms. Its key stipulation is that all government loans be restructured on the same terms.

The clause in Chinese debt contracts therefore runs counter to the Paris Club’s attempt to address the collective action problem of sovereign debt. Beijing has argued that many of these loans are not subject to the same terms because they are commercial, not intergovernmental, in nature – a position opposed both by Western commercial and intergovernmental creditors.

For all the damage wrought by the US-China trade wars in recent years, a major spat between China and the West over how to prioritise emerging markets’ loans in the aftermath of the pandemic would risk even more significant economic and geopolitical disruption.

Power play: a red star rising?

“You don’t have to live the blues to play the blues”

Herbie Mann

The Labour Party has not been on the receiving end of many uplifting headlines in the aftermath of the UK’s May local elections, a familiar turn of events for a party that has been out of Westminster government since 2010. Silver linings have been found in some local races – for example in the Cambridge and Peterborough mayoralties – which will give some hope to those arguing that Labour must expand into the suburbs and commuter belt if it is to halt the impact of Conservative gains in northern England’s former Labour heartlands.

Labour’s other relative bright spot was the re-election of London mayor Sadiq Khan, though his share of first-preference votes fell slightly from 44.2% to 40.0%, far more votes first-round votes were lost to the left-leaning Greens than the Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey. Khan had a turbulent campaign and a series of senior aides resigned in the aftermath of the vote, with Khan set to bring in a new cadre of advisors that could position him as a future Labour leader, particularly if incumbent Keir Starmer’s authority continues to be questioned.

Khan’s first hire was Richard Watts, who has served as leader of the Islington Council since 2014. The council has been (in)famous in the past for its far-left leanings – famously flying a red flag in the 1980s and even through the mid-1990s – and he appears to have his pulse on the matter of voter-relevant issues: he lead a 2014 paper calling for free school meals for students to be expanded long before famous international footballer Marcus Rashford made the issue a prominent one amid the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Watts’ appointment should be seen as an effort to put a London jobs policy at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic recovery.

While hardly a household name, Watts is perhaps best known within political circles for his instrumental role in formulating the “Workforce Focus” paper on upskilling residents published by the Local Government Association. His new appointment, as Khan’s deputy chief of staff, will very much be in this vein, as he will chair the newly-announced ‘London Recovery Task Force’.

Watts’ profile may be unlikely to give him a national profile, but the fate of his policies may well be at the core of Labour’s electoral success in the coming years. If his agenda succeeds in putting London at the fore of the economic recovery – a particularly challenging brief given expectations the ‘work from home’ trend will continue beyond the pandemic – it might just help to convince increasingly socially-liberal voters in the country’s suburbs and commuter belts to put their faith in Labour’s economic policies as well.

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