With the election just a few days away, here is a quiz for you. Which manifesto contains the following:
“A well-functioning economy which works for everyone cannot be based solely on companies owned by and operated on behalf of small groups of shareholders… Too many people justifiably feel left behind.”
“When shareholders are looking for quick short-term returns, they encourage companies to cut corners… Scandals such as the failure of BHS show how the long-term growth of a company can be sacrificed for the sake of a quick buck.”
“The public is rightly affronted by the remuneration of some corporate leaders… We will stand up to those in positions of power who abuse that privilege.”
That was a trick question. The quotes are taken from the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative manifestos respectively. Whatever their differences, it seems that all the main national parties share a suspicion of big businesses and those who invest in them. The disagreement, such as it is, appears only to be about the extent of the mistrust.
Nobody is going to deny that a gulf has grown between big business and society and that business needs to play its part in bridging it.
But there is a danger that political rhetoric will make the gulf wider and more intractable. The public’s view of business is likely to become more entrenched, hearing it criticised by the left, right and centre; and the views of companies will harden if they feel they are being unfairly criticised. And they will keep their heads down rather than participate in the debate for fear of further criticism.
Theresa May rightly recognised in her introduction to last year’s Green Paper on corporate governance reform that it is “the behaviour of a limited few [that] has damaged the reputation of the many”, and the various manifestos are more nuanced than the extracts I quoted. But that nuance is missing in the public statements that are being made, which feed the false perception that all large companies are either already behaving badly or will start doing so the moment your back is turned.
And that isn’t helpful. If business is to help heal the divisions that have been developing for a long time but become more evident of late, it needs to be as a partner, not as the enemy. Punish the villains, by all means, but not the vast majority of companies that strive both to be profitable and to do the right thing by their employees, customers and society as a whole.
Coming out of a period of austerity and entering a period of uncertainty, it is all the more important that British business is given every encouragement to grow and prosper, so that we can all prosper with them.