The U.K. Election Means Big Change for Business—No Matter Who Wins

Thursday’s general election in the United Kingdom will change the country’s course. Parties and the electorate are more polarized than they have been in decades, so major change is coming, one way or the other.

There is no doubt that one issue dominates the election: Brexit. Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party wants to urgently push ahead with it; Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opposition wants to renegotiate it and hold a second referendum that includes the option to remain in the European Union; and Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats—a smaller party but one that may soon play kingmaker—want to simply scrap the whole thing.

However, while the fate of Brexit will have an enormous impact on companies operating in the U.K.—many of which have been paralyzed by years of uncertainty—it is not the only issue on the table that will heavily affect them.

So here’s what the big parties’ election manifestos say regarding four other big issues that will also shape how business is conducted in the country for years to come. Because while the election’s winners will likely be determined by their Brexit policies, they will enter 10 Downing Street with many more promises to fulfil.

Corporation Tax

When the Conservatives took power in 2010, in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, corporation tax stood at 28%. By the end of the coalition five years later, it was down to 20%. Later that year, the Conservatives—by now ruling alone—knocked it down to 19%.

They were due to cut it further to 17% in 2020, but that plan has now been shelved, so the Conservatives are now effectively promising no change from the 19% rate. Labour swings furthest in the other direction, promising to hike the corporation tax rate back up to 26% by 2022. The Liberal Democrats are targeting a much smaller increase to 20%—the level that applied when they left government four and a half years ago.

It is worth noting that the amount of corporation tax raised in the U.K. has in fact increased consistently over the past six years, despite the falling rate, with multinationals paying ever more into the coffers. The U.K.’s comparatively low corporation tax rate is a likely factor in attracting business to the country—for example, across the English Channel, French rates start at 31%.

Employee Ownership

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are talking about boosting employee ownership schemes—where workers get dividends from shares held in employee-controlled funds—and cracking down on excessive executive pay.

Labour would force large companies to let workers own 10% of the business and a third of board seats, giving them dividends and more control over the salaries of management. The Liberal Democrats would “encourage” employee ownership schemes, while also ensuring that staff are represented on remuneration committees, and that large companies have at least one employee representative on their boards. Shareholders would also get binding votes on executive pay policies under the Liberal Democrats plan.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto does not mention employee ownership, though the Conservative/Liberal-Democrat coalition did take a major step forward on the issue five years ago—to encourage such schemes, company owners gained a capital gains tax exemption on the sale of their controlling interest to employee-controlled funds, and workers got a limited income tax exemption on the shares they receive.

This year the Conservatives are however promising to “improve incentives to attack the problem of excessive executive pay,” though their manifesto doesn’t go into any more detail on that point.

Electric Cars

The parties’ manifestos all talk about fighting climate change while ensuring that jobs remain secure in the transition to a low-carbon future—Labour offers the most detail on this subject, followed by the Liberal Democrats, then the Conservatives.

Both the Conservatives and Labour see part of the solution in the building of gigafactories—plants for making batteries for electric vehicles. This manufacturing mostly takes place in China today, but car-producing countries such as Germany and France are keen to get in on the act; now, so is the U.K., which has seriously lost its edge in the auto-making stakes over recent decades and would very much like to get it back.

The Conservative manifesto promises funding for one gigafactory in the next budget. Labour is promising three gigafactories, plus four metal reprocessing plants that would also serve the electric-car industry. The Liberal Democrat manifesto does not have anything to say about the British auto-making sector.

Tesla famously rejected the U.K. as the site for its first European gigafactory—last month, it opted for Berlin instead, with CEO Elon Musk blaming Brexit uncertainty for the decision. All of the parties aim to end that uncertainty one way or another.

Tech Crackdown

The tech industry in particular can expect a hard time whichever party wins the election.

The Conservatives and Labour both plan to crack down on tech firms that fail to protect children online and tackle the issue of online abuse. Both parties also intend to reform gambling laws for the digital age (gambling is legal in the U.K. but heavily regulated). Labour wants to set new limits on the activity, while the Conservatives want to expand the law to cover in-game “loot boxes”—paid-for boxes that contain randomized weapons or character traits that may or may not prove useful in the game.

Labour also plans to “to address the monopolistic hold the tech giants have on advertising revenues” and stop foreign tech firms from exploiting data from the U.K. National Health Service. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have a big focus on data and algorithms: they want to introduce a new mechanism that would “allow the public to share in the profits made by tech companies in the use of their data,” and they want to introduce new standards and codes of ethics to keep the development of artificial intelligence aligned with the public interest.

There is also widespread agreement between the parties about making tech multinationals pay their fair share of tax, by cracking down on the profit-shifting tactics that let them avoid paying much tax in the U.K. The Conservatives have already scheduled a Digital Services Tax for next year that would force the likes of Facebook and Amazon to pay a 2% rate on their U.K.-derived revenues. The Liberal Democrats like this idea and say they will “improve” on it. Labour likes it too, and intends to use the proceeds to pay for the operational costs of a renationalized broadband network.

If you would like to read the parties’ promises for yourself, you will find the Conservative manifesto here, Labour’s manifesto here, and the Liberal Democrat manifesto here.

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