After Carillion: we need to end zombie capitalism

The liquidation of Carillion, Britain’s second largest construction company, is extremely worrying for its 43,000 workers and their families worldwide, of whom 20,000 live in Britain. This big government contractor going bust means damaging disruption not just to its own employees, but also to its many suppliers and their employees. And it is bad news, too, for the many more thousands relying on Carillion for their pensions. Unfortunately, though, much of the initial political and media reaction has been too narrow to learn the lessons from this calamity. The state has been propping up business and making life more precarious for workers.

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Free market vs nationalisation? It’s a delusional divide

This autumn’s UK party conferences triggered reminiscences about the old political debates from the 1970s and 1980s. Jeremy Corbyn wowed his new Labour Party supporters with a call for full-scale nationalisation, including of the rail, mail, water and energy companies. In response, senior Tories used their conference speeches to assert the merits of the ‘free market’, under the inspiring mantra of ‘no return to the 1970s’. Theresa May used her infamous leader’s speech to declare that ‘the free-market economy, for so long the basis of our prosperity’, is under threat, and needs defending.

As a great 19th-century thinker remarked, history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, and second as farce.

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A successful industrial strategy requires letting zombie firms die

As the government considers its industrial strategy white paper, due later this year, it must first break free from blinkered thinking.

While doubtless well intentioned, the familiar policies under discussion so far – additional public infrastructure investment, more state-funded research, and skills enhancement, with a particular focus on management training – are not sufficient to bring about a new industrial revolution.

The flaw in this approach is that none are new practices – and even as they have been operating, Britain’s productivity trap has been getting worse. Repeating what hasn’t been working is not a good route.

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