Kevin Craig: Business and politics need to get back to basics
PMs such as John Major used to rely on business figures for advice and guidance.
For more than two decades, I’ve been advising some of the most prominent organisations throughout the country and the world on how they interact with politicians, at all levels. Whether corporations were navigating the latter years of John Major’s stagnant government, or analysing the newfound optimism heralded by New Labour, a common thread remained; the government was on their side. Until now.
Brexit has, naturally, caused plenty of consternation in the business community due to the technical practicalities of leaving the European Union. But perhaps the most worrying concept for business leaders to grasp is the understanding that their priorities no longer reign supreme.
The souring of public perception of the commercial world following the financial crisis in the late-2000s was the genesis of this shift. It’s a common thesis amongst the commentariat that Brexit was, in part, a reaction to the years of anti-corporate sentiment and economic hardship that followed the financial crash. This is no better evidenced than the relentless warnings from business leaders about the perils of leaving the European Union falling on deaf ears.
As the largest democratic exercise in decades, the Leave vote meant the voices of CEOs in their ivory towers carried equal sway with those of working class people living on the kind of council estate I grew up on in south London. This has trickled down (or up!) to the political elite. Whereas cabinet ministers and top officials were traditionally more than willing to at least give senior business leaders a hearing, today their concerns are met with four-letter expletives. A shift of this magnitude has seen a huge erosion of trust on all sides. Now, more than ever before, corporations face an uphill struggle when attempting to constructively engage with politicians for the betterment of the economy and society as a whole.
In part, this has been compounded by the new era of political parties failing to win majorities. In a political setting where every vote counts, elements of ‘populism’ have become prevalent on all sides of political debate to secure support from disparate factions of the electorate. In other words, the influence of business on the political classes has been diluted by newfound people power.
In addition, the technological revolution has sparked huge upheaval in the labour market. With more than five million Brits now part of the gig economy, employee loyalty is at an all-time low. Whereas in the past, voters would make their decision at the ballot based on which party’s policies were more beneficial to their employer, the new breed of worker has very different considerations, and politicians have taken note.
Regardless of what happens post-Brexit, the relationship between politicians and the business community has been undeniably transformed. During the years of Thatcher, Major, Blair, Cameron et al., political leaders relied on their counterparts in business for counsel, advice and guidance. Today, business leaders have to work harder than ever to get their voices heard.
Clearly, the huge divisions unearthed by this episode in our democracy need healing, and the currently tetchy relationship between business and politics would be a good place to start.