‘Rights for shares’ flop demonstrates wider crisis of creativity within the government

By Alex Bryan

This week it has come to light that George Osborne’s ‘rights for shares’ scheme has, two months before it is even due to begin, become an embarrassing failure for the government. It has been reported that only 6 companies have enquired about the plan, much lower than expected from a scheme which was deemed important and popular enough to star in the Chancellor’s speech to the Conservative Party conference.

When the policy was announced many, including myself, were sceptical, firstly of the chances of such a move boosting a dormant economy and secondly of the desirability of aiding businesses through the disempowerment and exploitation of their workers. The muted response to the policy shows that these reservations are widespread, and signals another failed attempt in the government’s search for growth.

With hindsight, it seems ludicrous that such a policy could have been given such a high billing, not only because of its limitations as a policy but also due to its rather traditional character. The general theory that restricting the rights of workers will enhance productivity and profits is steeped in history and, for a government (and specifically the leadership of the Conservative Party) which presents an image of modernisation and fresh thinking, rather staid.

The now entrenched divide between Conservative frontbenchers and backbenchers seems to be largely based on David Cameron’s process of ‘detoxification’, which involved the rejection of a number of key traditional conservative mantras. The Cameroons are often derided by those who do not regard them as ‘true’ conservatives, often to the point where backbench rebellions threaten government credibility.

It seems strange then that such an image would be maintained despite the central placement of such policies. However, this is not an issue of a backbench-frontbench divide. Rather, it is demonstrative of a wider crisis of creativity within the government at present. With the exception of a few ministers most departments have tended to continue presenting rehashed versions of old ideas, which have been embraced by Number 10.

The ‘rights for shares’ scheme was not only poorly thought through, it was disappointingly predictable. The specific implementation of the idea might be new, but the idea itself is far from it. This is not to say that all government policies must be entirely original, or that there is not something within political history that governments could learn, but that faced with the particular crises that are at hand, and with a government which trumpets the importance of innovation and entrepreneurialism from the rooftops, one might expect more interesting thought.

Even most of the policies floated in opposition to the government by their own MP’s are lacking in intellectual vim. The ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’ floated by a group of Conservative backbenchers was more a 1913 vintage than a 2013, other than a sole sensible and interesting suggestion (to establish a maximum number of members of the House of Lords).

Sometimes though, backbenchers come up with better ideas. This week Nadhim Zahawi MP echoed Boris Johnson’s previous call for an amnesty of all existing illegal immigrants within the UK, saying that the move would be economically advantageous as well as electorally astute for the Conservatives. Writing for a conservative think tank aiming to increase the popularity of the Conservative Party among ethnic minority voters, Zahawi’s suggestion is clearly far from selfless, but it is still brave and worthy of serious consideration.

Unfortunately, the government distanced itself from the suggestions as quickly as it could. The fact that the government could promote Osborne’s ‘rights for shares’ policy so whole-heartedly and yet dismiss Zahawi’s idea without public discussion demonstrates the wider pattern of unimaginative policy. Before David Cameron came into office, he was aware that this could be a problem, and he tried to solve it by bringing in unorthodox policy guru Steve Hilton. Since Hilton’s departure, the problem has only become more pronounced.

The economic crisis, in both length and character, differs from any we have previously faced. Globalisation, climate change, international terrorism and energy crises have created a peculiar political environment, which will not revert to a fabled status quo. In times of trouble, it is imperative that leaders are creative and imaginative, thinking about problems without genuine openness and ingenuity. Unfortunately, at the moment, it remains to be seen whether our leaders are thinking at all.

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