In a departure from our regular from the lobby feature, IPSE asked freelancer, and former Conservative Party Official, Simon Brooke to reflect on his Party's relationship with the self-employed following the Chancellor's Budget on 8 March
When I left Conservative Central Office in 1995 I was asked by my erstwhile colleagues what I was going to do after I’d walked out of that famous office in Smith Square for the last time. I was joining a lobbying firm, it was assumed. No? Oh, OK, a job as a political producer at the BBC? No, in that case it must be industry or something. Really? What then?
The answer was that I was going to do my own thing. Having spent six years in the press office, the last few as Head of Broadcasting, promoting free enterprise and entrepreneurship I was going to have a go at it myself. Hadn’t John Major commended “the risk takers of Britain,” just a few years earlier? Now I was going to take a risk by becoming self-employed.
My plan was to become a journalist and media consultant, helping organisations and individuals to get the best possible media coverage and to handle difficult issues. Most of all, I wanted to see if I could enable them to do media interviews during which they actually answered the questions rather than treating the audience as idiots. I wanted them to sound like human beings, not cliché spouting automatons. That’s right - I didn’t want my clients to sound like politicians.
So, when it came to self-employment I could spin it – but could I do it? Well, I’m still in business. My client base and my earnings have grown. As everyone who is self-employed knows the highs are higher and the lows lower. We don’t have bosses or office politics. On the other hand, neither do we have sick leave, maternity or paternity leave or paid holiday - that’s why we’ve always assumed that the tax man would go a little bit easier on us.
Hence the anger at the Chancellor’s decision to increase NIC contributions for the selfemployed. Personally I could have paid the extra few hundred pounds and, as was noted, the change would only have netted the government an additional £145m. But the important point here was the signal that this decision sent out.
In politics as in communications generally symbolism is all – a company might have hundreds of thousands of happy customers, for instance, but it’s the one that has been badly treated that will make a media story. Similarly, a budget could have many sensible measures but it’s the one that raises a tax unexpectedly or leaves one particular group worse off that will attract attention.
I often discuss with my clients why the media loves bad news and why the “What’s In It For Me?” factor is key to any communication. The NICs proposal had bags of both of these.
The Conservative Party has always championed the self-employed and it has benefited from the transition over the last few decades of a workforce that was substantially employed by large, homogenous, unionised industries to one that is increasingly diverse and entrepreneurial.
The term “white van man” has become a badge of honour for hundreds of thousands of us and many of my younger colleagues operate a “slash-slash,” working model. “I’m a bar owner, slash artist, slash online marketer” as someone told me recently. Insanely hip? Maybe, but he’s making a living – and paying taxes.
It seems likely that for the next few years at least, the Labour Party will be dominated by people who have little or no interest in practical policies on employment and taxation.
They might pride themselves as being the party of enterprise but the Conservatives can’t take the self-employed for granted. My 20-something bar-owning, artistic marketer colleague, for instance, sees no automatic affiliation. The Tories need to communicate with him and with millions like him more effectively.
According to research published last month by the Daily Telegraph there are eleven marginal Tory seats with a particularly high proportion of self-employed voters. In Gower, for instance, where the Tories have a majority of just 0.1 per cent, one in five are self-employed.
The growth of the ‘gig economy’ and the recent court cases which have considered what constitutes an employee, a worker or a contractor have focussed attention on how we work in Britain in the 21st century, how we get rewarded for that work as well as the rights that it confers on us.
It seems likely that for the next few years at least, the Labour Party will be dominated by people who have little or no interest in practical policies on employment and taxation. Note that Matthew Taylor who headed the No 10 policy unit under Tony Blair is looking at this issue for Theresa May now, not Jeremy Corbyn. Many self-employed Tories will watch with some anxiety. Again, in communications terms there is a symbolic importance in this surprise appointment.
Therefore, the challenge of devising and implementing a fair and effective way of taxing our evolving workforce will fall upon the Conservative Party.
Tax take aside, changing the taxation regime for remuneration presents both a challenge and an opportunity to shape the world of work for the foreseeable future. As well as big picture thinking this change will require effective and open communication with all the relevant audiences – the kind that we didn’t see this time.
The challenge of devising and implementing a fair and effective way of taxing our evolving workforce will fall upon the Conservative Party
As I know from my time in politics, governments and the civil service tend to be inward looking. They see a problem, devise a solution and then implement it. A press release and round of media interviews follows. Sometimes this approach works but with sensitive, bread-and-butter issues such as taxation it often doesn’t.
Accepting challenges and opportunities are what becoming self-employed is all about, of course. So, as a self-employed Tory, I hope that this government will embrace the opportunities presented by these changes in the workforce, accept the challenges to taxation that they present – and make a success of them.
Words by Simon Brooke