The Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson has vowed to “breathe new life into high streets” by scrapping business rates and launching a new tax on commercial landowners.
The eye-catching pledge was unveiled in the party leader’s pitch to UK corporate leaders at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual conference in London on Monday.
Asked whether her party could prop up a Labour government, Swinson also promised: “Jeremy Corbyn will not be put into Number 10 by Liberal Democrat votes.”
She said her party were now “the natural party of business,” and won a small round of applause after vowing to “stop Brexit on day one” of a Lib Dem government.
She told more than 1,000 delegates: “We believe any form of Brexit, hard or soft, blue or red, will be bad for jobs, bad for business and bad for public services.
“If you want to ‘get Brexit done’ or ‘get Brexit sorted’, you are not the party of business. With the Conservatives in the pocket of Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn stuck in the 1970s, we are the only ones standing up for you.”
She pledged to reform business property taxes to “shift the burden from the tenant to the landlord,” and said rates were a “crippling cost” for firms with stores competing with online rivals.
She said Britain had gone through enough reviews already, after prime minister Boris Johnson promised to hold another review lower business rates in his own speech to the conference earlier in the day.
But the Lib Dem leader faced difficult questions from the media after her speech about whether landowners would simply pass on higher tax bills into higher rents for firms.
CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn welcomed Swinson’s proposals to work with firms “to tackle climate change, improve skills and back business as a force for good.”
But she warned a land value tax like the Lib Dem proposal was “mired in complexity” and warned it was “unclear how it would cut overall costs or provide a level playing field.”
She also said there were other ways than employee representatives on boards to ensure staff views were represented at the highest level.
Other Swinson pledges included forcing all large UK firms to put at least one employee representative on boards, and a £10,000 “skills wallet” for every English adult to spend on training.
She also said the Lib Dems wanted to introduce a general “duty of care” on environmental and human rights for companies and public organisations.
The speech included repeated attacks on Labour and the Conservatives over their plans to “splash the cash on this or that infrastructure project” and lack of clear commitment to free movement.
She said both Labour and the Conservatives would be forced to “scramble around” for projects simply to hit their target spending figures.
Labour meanwhile “thinks little” of property rights, Swinson suggested in an attack on Corbyn’s nationalisation plans.
Swinson said firms were paying a “high price” for Johnson’s Brexit plans, adding: “Only a foolish government would fail to harness that spirit of innovation to transform our country for the better.”