Sunday, 22 July 2018

F**k business

Before his latest piece of self-promotion, Boris Johnson had been in the news for making an interesting remark - "Fuck business" - in a conversation about the attitudes of corporates towards Brexit. Though it's a few weeks back now, it seems this remark was largely seen as yet another example of why Johnson was so unsuitable as foreign secretary. It was also seen as significant in terms of how far the Conservatives have fallen out with a previously supportive corporate world.

But as we know, Johnson is rather keen on swimming with the popular tide, so I wonder if actually this remark is more evidence of how the politics of corporate support have shifted dramatically in recent years. Put another way, where once in recent history politicians would have worn corporate support as a badge of pride, now many prefer to define themselves in opposition to business.

I thought this was shifting a few years ago. Some interesting YouGov polling in 2015 found that while a substantial minority of voters thought that Ed Miliband was too hostile to business, more of them thought that David Cameron was too close to business. Of course Miliband lost, but I'm not sure the attempts to get business to speak out against his "Marxist" ideas were as damaging as similar interventions might have been in the past.

An interesting factoid in that YouGov polling was that more UKIP voters (20%) thought that Ed Miliband was too close to business than for any other party (screenshot below). 

This might reflect the fact that, at the time, UKIP was picking up ex-Labour voters. It also shows (if it wasn't obvious already) that there is a strong anti-corporate vibe around the radical Right. 

Of course we saw hostility to corporate influence come up repeatedly in both the Scottish independence and EU referenda, with corporate interventions characterised (not unfairly) as the voice of "the elite" and "Project Fear". I think in both cases it hit home. It's notable that Dominic Cummings of all people says that the cynicism about corporate motives, heightened by the financial crisis, was an important tailwind for the Leave campaign.

Since Jeremy Corbyn has taken over as Labour leader, our policy positions have gone further to the Left (though not actually that far, in my opinion). Labour routinely makes a point of defining itself in opposition to and a challenger of corporate interests, which would have been unthinkable in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Conservatives have tried to ape this, though climb downs such that over worker representation on boards shows that they still find this difficult territory.

This is unlikely to change any time soon. As I've blogged before, polling for the Legatum Institute has shown that on a range of issues the public hold views on corporate/economic issues that are left-wing by today's standards. Perhaps they always held these views, and the 1990s political settlement simply didn't acknowledge them. But now they are certainly in play, and the position of business within politics is radically different to even a few years ago. It's notable that some investors are alert to this.

Boris Johnson might be a self-serving, shallow politician. But he is not stupid. His reported remark is probably a marketing initiative, not a gaffe.

No comments: