Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies.
The recent conducted by Dr Frank Luntz on behalf of the Centre for Policy Studies think tank was some of the most extensive ever undertaken in the UK. It is no surprise, then, that it has been the subject of and scrutiny for days, with an array of organisations poring over its findings and implications.
ConservativeHome readers might point out – when asked their opinion of British business – that our firms create jobs and opportunities, provide salaries to their employees, pay billions in taxes, are innovative and socially responsible. But Luntz’s poll found that the associations that spring to mind for most people are about “profit over people“, tax avoidance or excessive CEO pay.
This cynicism was all the clearer when voters were asked what business and economic leaders care most about. The British public chose “making as much money as possible for themselves” and “using loopholes to pay as little in tax as possible” as their second and third most popular answers. Only “making a profit for their companies and shareholders” was more frequently pointed to. But before anyone takes too much comfort from the public’s familiarity of the Companies Act, I should point out that I am not sure that those polled meant it in a good way.
To those of us who are supportive of free and open markets, this rings serious alarms bells. Not least because it’s the latest example in a worrying trend. Similar notes of caution were struck by a report published this week by the Institute of Economic Affairs entitled Left Turn Ahead? It points to widespread distrust of business and capitalism among the young – almost three quarters of whom think our current economic system fuels racism, greed and exploitation. Crucially, the report argued that this sentiment no longer diminishes with age.
Luntz’s findings suggest that the British public has fallen out out of love with business and that they are not convinced it’s a cause worth fighting for. A majority of voters even agreed with the statement: “When I look at the corporate leaders and how they treat us, I just think ‘f*** them all’.” Although at least business executives can console themselves that they fared slightly better than the politicians.
I wholeheartedly disagree with such attitudes. Britain has so many great businesses, and it needs more of them. Businesses create the jobs and wealth and innovation that keep this country going.
But it is clear that if we going to convince the public to change their minds, we need to carefully consider the terrain on which we are fighting and the battles which will win the war. Here are some ideas:
First, as Luntz has consistently pointed out over his long and distinguished career, language matters. Capitalism is unpopular. But to many of capitalism’s advocates, terms like free enterprise and open markets can be used interchangeably with it – and other polling suggests these concepts are more favourably received. If a phrase is more appealing than capitalism to those who reject it as a concept, then it makes sense for those who believe in the benefits of this system to adopt the language which people more readily accept.
Second, we need link the benefits of the economic system to individuals’ lives and livelihoods in the most direct way possible. Those surveyed by Luntz and the CPS were clear that they prefer the term “employers” to “companies” (and both, overwhelmingly, to “corporations”), as well as “employees” to “workers”. This suggests they want a sense of participation and reciprocity – something which comes out more generally in the polling. Again, it makes sense to adopt this language and point out the symbiotic relationship between employers and employees as far as possible.
Third – and this is not something brought out in the survey – we should talk more about the sorts of businesses people are typically more supportive of. As I have undertaken at the CPS demonstrates, people are far more positively inclined towards the sorts of small and family businesses which make up the vast majority of companies within the UK. When trying to convince people of the value of businesses we should “think small” wherever possible.
Finally, we need to remind people of the role businesses play in society. This is not a plea for businesses to publish well-intentioned but often meaningless ESG strategies. Nor is it a suggestion that businesses should demonstrate their right-on credentials – the British people left Luntz in no doubt that they did not want business leaders weighing in on culture wars. But it is a suggestion that we draw out the link between business and the things the British people care about all the more clearly.
When asked the fundamental purpose of the economy and presented with a dozen options, more than a third of those asked responded “to pay for public services like the NHS”. It might not be the purpose I would pick, but the British public are absolutely right to draw a link between businesses and the revenue needed for the proper running of our public services. So let’s remind them of the link whenever we can.
All is not lost. Luntz’s polling data also showed that most voters (especially Conservative ones) put a value on hard work and that they think success in this country is typically earned and deserved. But the survey presented a fascinating and sobering insight into the crisis of confidence in capitalism which this country faces. If we do not heed its lessons, we will be faced with a crisis not just in confidence, but in capitalism itself.