We must embrace being the party of business

The next election gives us a real opportunity. Brexit is shattering traditional party loyalties and both tired, old-parties are rapidly shifting towards polarising extremes, alienating swathes of their traditional support base.  

Given this, the Liberal Democrats are increasingly able to offer a political lifeboat to those who believe in sensible and evidence-based, rather than ideological-based policies.

One group that is ripe for the taking in the current climate, is the business community. 

Traditionally, business has strongly supported the Conservatives. However Brexit, combined with the lurch to the right of the Conservatives under Boris Johnson, means increasingly business feels alienated from what once they may have considered their “natural home”. 

It’s not all about Brexit either, with the divergent views of business over their support for HS2 and opposition to discriminatory migration proposals, it is clear there is a growing rift between the current Conservative leadership and the business community. This, combined with our pro-EU, internationalist outlook, means that businesses alignment with our policy goals and values is much more of a natural fit than continued alignment with an increasingly isolationist Conservative Party. 

Under Jeremy Corbyn, with policies that resemble a 1970’s socialist, the Labour Party cannot and will not offer any form of a home for business. Indeed, at a business industry fringe at their conference in Brighton, it took Corbyn twenty minutes of his speech, before he even mentioned the word “business”. The current Shadow Business Secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, does not perform much better, and appears unreceptive to the idea that business and the private-sector must be part of the solution and not simply a problem. Given this, it seems likely that allies that Labour may once have had in business and industry, are likely to be dropping away even more rapidly than their Conservative counterparts.  

With all this in mind, never before do I think it has been as likely as it is now that we could see a fundamental realignment in the way that business views the UK’s political parties. 

Our party must be open to this.

Not only is championing business interests the right thing to do, but it also gives us an amazing opportunity to stand side by side with businesses which promote internationalism, entrepreneurism and community engagement. These values are our values and, living through a political time where increasingly both sides of the political divide are rushing for populism, isolationism and the policies of the past, it allows us to remind the public of what people can achieve, working together in a modern, connected, global Britain. 

This was one of the reasons I was so pleased to hear earlier this week that Jo Swinson would be appearing at the CBI annual conference next month. As, so far, the only confirmed politician, appearing alongside a line-up of leaders spanning numerous different sectors within business and industry, I’m confident attendees will be receptive to our message. Looking to the future, I look forward to seeing our relationships with business grow further, and for our party to one day take on the mantle of the “natural home” that has so erroneously been mishandled by the Conservatives. 


* Guy Benson is a Liberal Democrat member who also serves on the executive of the Young Liberals.

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  • William: you are right, the term ‘a party of business’ is the wrong language to use. I suggest, ‘the party that works with business so our economy thrives for the benefit of all’. Guy is right to see that we have an opportunity now to be better at this than either the Conservatives or Labour. For example, there are now an increasing number of business people who recognise that the way we do business has to change for the sake of our environment, for the sake of the disadvantaged in our communities AND for the sake of the growth of business in an efficient long-term way. Lord Stern many years ago produced a report outlining that dealing with the environment was in the long-term interests of business. Likewise business can help more with the development of skills among the disadvantaged, so that not only do those people thrive, but so does business.

  • ‘We must embrace being the party of business’ say Guy Benson – who is, I suppose predictably, a Lib Dem member in London who works in the financial services industry’.

    And whilst you’re at it, Guy, how about the Lib Dems becoming the party of the less fortunate in society whose ‘social safety net has been “deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos”, ‘ ?

    Poverty in the UK is ‘systematic’ and ‘tragic’, says UN special … https://www.bbc.co.uk › news › uk-48354692
    22 May 2019 – Poverty in the UK is ‘systematic’ and ‘tragic’, says UN special rapporteur. The UK’s social safety net has been “deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos”, a report commissioned by the UN has said.

    Poverty in the UK | The Joseph Rowntree Foundation‎
    Our new research into the public’s attitude towards poverty in the UK. Housing. Research. Blogs. Inspiring Social Change. Data. Highlights: Independent Social Change Organisation, Running A Housing Association And Care Provider.
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  • We tried this under Clegg. It didn’t work then — it lost us two thirds of our support — and it won’t work now. Let’s not retreat to the failed policies of the past.

  • How about being the “party of responsible business”.

  • The party of the common people. While small businesses may be seen as part of “us” big businesses are not. The big business I belonged to at the time of the refrendum pushed its employees to vote ” Remain, such was the love for it by a substantial number of its employees they voted ” Leave”. Ultimately counter productive for a large number of them, as the rush to move jobs away from the UK accelerated after the vote and they became jobless. As in all such circumstance some benefited from being paid off and finding new jobs, others are in dire straits. The one thing I can say if that particular company said ” Vote Lib Dem” it wouldn’t increase our vote it would decrease it, the adverse effect they would have is as nothing to be identified to the likes of many other better known multinationals who are even more toxic.

  • Innocent Bystander 27th Oct '19 - 3:08pm

    Well you tried, but all the above responses says it all, and with eloquence. For this is the party of the Kibbutz and the micro enterprise (doing what, God alone knows).
    As frankie says, for the LibDems, big (private sector) employers are “toxic”.

  • Nonconformistradical 27th Oct '19 - 7:59pm

    @Sam Gyimah

    “How about being the “party of responsible business”.
    Yes – I like that.

    Businesses which operate for the benefit of the many rather than the few.

    Businesses which pay their employees properly and treat their suppliers properly.

    Businesses which do not dodge paying taxes

  • Yeovil Yokel 27th Oct '19 - 8:37pm

    Good suggestion, Sam, and welcome to LDV!

  • Thanks all for your comments – just wanted to drop a few replies to some of them:

    @William Francis – I agree, part of what being “pro-business” should be about however is being able to take an argument or policy and show how, at the end point of that policy, it will lead to a tangible positive effect on individuals (more jobs, lower cost of living, higher living standards, more choice etc) so that we can go further than just saying a policy is good for business, but show why that is also good for individuals. While its true that big businesses can be a prime target of the media, we should not lose track of some of the social good that these organisations do (alongside obviously the fact that they collectively employ millions)

    @David Raw – as others have said, I don’t believe being the party of business is a mutually exclusive thing, of course we can be the party of the less fortunate in society and the party of business. In relation to your comment about my personal situation – I’m not entirely sure what you were trying to say here but for what its worth I only moved to London this year and am perfectly happy about the fact I work in a sector that employs more than a million people in the UK directly, and many more indirectly.

    @David1 – I don’t really think its fair to equate being pro-business with losing support under Nick Clegg. Under Clegg, in 2010 we grew our support from 22% in 2005 to 23% (albeit losing seats due to bad targeting). The vast majority of our loss of support then happened in the six months immediately after the coalition was formed that had much more to do with the coalition itself rather than any specific Lib Dem policies….

    @Sam Gyimah – I like this!

    @Ewan Hoyle – Agree entirely! As I’ve said in the article, many of our policies be it on Brexit, on HS2 and infrastructure or on immigration are already clearly the most “pro-business” alongside obviously being the right policies more generally!

    @Geoffrey Payne – Also agreed! As mentioned, opposing Brexit, supporting HS2, supporting a massive infrastructure investment and opposing immigration restrictions that the Tories wanted to put in place are all policies which ourselves and business are already aligned on. With regard to the environment and other wider policies, I definitely think we’re in the process of seeing a cultural shift within many big organisations as they recognise the need to be responsible global companies.

  • Let’s not forget, that businesses create most of the jobs, so being pro-business means being pro-jobs. It is all about how to balance these and how to articulate it to the public.

    One thing that shouldn’t be forgotten either, is that the amount of spending promises that Johnson’s government has made is increasingly approaching the spending promises made by Corbyn’s Labour. Liberal Democrats would also increase spending, but in a more responsible and considered way, and are also telling where the money comes from. Johnson.is promising a lot more spending, and at the same time tax cuts. And all this while.the Brexit is threatening exports. How could this work in long term? Usually people in business understand something about the economics, and this might be something worth pointing to them.

  • David Evans 27th Oct '19 - 9:51pm

    Of course being Pro HS2 is not necessarily a sign of good sense. One of the little side proposals of HS2 is that no direct trains to London would stop in Cumbria – Currently there are 28 each weekday.

    Current local headline “MP receives assurances that HS2 trains *could* stop in Cumbria.
    Any fool can make train journey times faster by cutting out stops.

  • Well said, Guy. Of course the Lib Dems should be pro-business. Business creates jobs, tax revenues and wealth. It is a basis for innovation and creativity.

    And as others have said, being pro-business and wanting high standards of protection for employees, the environment and society in general are not mutually exclusive positions. Far from it. Good, sustainable, productive business thrives on a level playing field with rules that flush out crappy businesses that can only operate by driving down standards.

    I would also reject the idea that the only good business is a small business. For one thing, many, many people are employed by those big companies. But more than that, bug businesses’ behaviour is also worth taking into account. As someone in business, I often work with and for much larger companies, and it is striking to see how important good behaviour is in bigger businesses, be that in terms of diversity, equality, the environment or engagement in society. They are also, as Guy says, often very international in their view of the world, something that should chime with any Lib Dem.

    Labour’s tack to the hard left ended the relationship it had cultivated with business. And the Tories have, under May and now Johnson, sprinted away from business, principally with the ideologically driven approach to Brexit. BoJo couldn’t have put it better: f**k business. That’s what today’s Tory Party thinks of British business.

    We absolutely should build our relationships with business. That shouldn’t stop us campaigning for dealing with international tax issues (Facebook, Uber, Amazon etc), or wanting to enhance employment protections (ban zero hour contracts for example), or promoting environmental protection measures. In fact, responsible business (to adopt Sam Gymiah’s suggestion) would welcome such things, and much more. We have nothing to fear from responsible business, and plenty to gain by working with them.

  • Patrick, I think we all need to remember David Penhaligon’s old comment on English China Clays, which went something like “The conservatives support what is good for English China Clays. I support what is good for the workers at English China Clays.

    Perhaps it be better if we said “Let’s not forget, that UK businesses create most of the country’s jobs, so being pro-jobs means we support good businesses.” That way we don’t automatically support say Dyson, who in addition to supporting Brexit, has moved almost all his businesses’ jobs to Singapore.

  • Paddy Ashdown used to say “Profit is not a dirty word in this party.” I always liked that form of words.

  • @David Evans, sounds good to me. That’s what I meant about articulating it to the public, that sounds like a well considered way to say it.

  • David Evans
    The Lib Dems should certainly support Dyson, we need more people like him. Yes he has moved his headquarters to Singapore, but still employs thousands of people in this country in well paid jobs. He has contributed a fortune in UK tax (during 2017 alone he paid £185 million) and although some of his businesses are overseas he continues to pay UK tax. Whether he’s a remainer or a leaver doesn’t matter, he has contributed enormously to this country and I only wish we had more like him.

  • David Sheppard 28th Oct '19 - 8:21am

    Those businesses that do the right thing pay proper wages give full time contracts retain profits. Invest in new machinery pay proper corporation tax pay Vat and Paye/NI on time give a little back to the community…There are sound reasons why these companies should be treated as outstanding and should be rewarded and encouraged. The party should find a way to recognise good well run enterprise.

  • David Evans 28th Oct '19 - 9:34am

    malc, I think you may be mistaking the Dyson I am talking about Dyson for a company with a similar name and famous owner that claims to have a clear and growing commitment to the UK. Can you give me a source for your claims – specifically “employs thousands of people in this country in well paid jobs”; “He has contributed a fortune in UK tax (during 2017 alone he paid £185 million)” and “although some of his businesses are overseas he continues to pay UK tax” [Specifically how much, after all a ten year old pays UK VAT on any sweets he/she purchases?]

  • The LibDems should present themselves as “The Party of Responsible Business”, then go on to support and encourage profit sharing, worker directors on boards, an active Industrial policy, job sharing/part term working rights, investment in new technology, exports promotions, training and increases in productivity as well as Green policies and sustainability.

    This does overlap into Labour areas, but they are planning to spend a near impossible £1trillion on capital projects over 10 years. It should be shown to be impossible to spend wisely without sucking in imported materials, labour and companies to fulfil it and in creating huge public debts. The more you try to spend, the lower the bar will be to it’s effectiveness.

  • We can redefine the term “pro-business” to be other than just Thatcherism, tax breaks and deregulation. Investments in public education, R&D and national infrastructures are pro-business by directly and indirectly help companies improve productivity and efficiency. Promoting a strong national healthcare system is also pro-business as it leads to a healthier and more productive workforce as well as reducing health care cost burden for both employers and employees. Strong and fair regulation and anti-trust legislations are also pro-business by preventing monopolies and foreign MNCs from crowding out new indigenous competitors, and also helping maintain world-class product and service quality. Regulations can also be used to promote t Corporate governance reforms towards long-termist and stakeholder-based governance system are also pro-business as they help promote corporate sustainability. You can be centre-left and still pro-business, and that differentiates social liberalism and social democracy from socialism.

  • Peter Davies 29th Oct '19 - 6:49am

    It is certainly possible to be the party of business (the activity) without being the party of capital which is only one of the stakeholders. Employees (from the cleaner to the CEO) are more dependant on business thriving in this country than investors who generally hold a global portfolio. Consumers too benefit from a competitive and diverse market. We all benefit from the taxes that business generates.

    What we have to be wary of is business lobbying. It doesn’t generally represent the interests of business in general but of specific businesses usually large ones and that means it can often lobby against the market to protect existing dominant players against upstarts.

  • David Evershed 29th Oct '19 - 11:24am

    A better starting point is free markets with open competition.

    This is fair for business and consumers alike
    ……………..so we can be the party of business
    ……………..and the party of consumers.

  • Thanks malc. I think you are reading too much into the old Guardian’s work. As I have already said, the claim ” he continues to pay UK tax” could just mean VAT. Also the Guardian article does not mention ‘well paid jobs’ so where did you get that from? Finally, I think that the Guardian has been a bit lax in its research. For example it looks like the figure for Tax includes tax paid to overseas governments.

    So all in all, I’m not at all sure your comment “I only wish we had more like him,” is still valid. Maybe I wish we had more like him as he used to be, but since his conversion to offshoring British jobs – I think not.

  • Peter Hirst 31st Oct '19 - 4:51pm

    I agree it is an open door and we need to embrace it. Businesses understand the need to adapt to climate change in what they do and how they market themselves. They can also only do business in a free and fair climate that respects their communities, stakeholders and customers. They also appreciate a long-term approach that predicts and adjusts to likely scenarios.

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