Stephan Shakespeare is a founder and global CEO of YouGov.
Could it be that Conservatives have become confused in their view of business? They were wrong-footed when Miliband launched his attack on the energy companies, and again in the orchestration against Pfizer’s attempted take-over of AstraZenica – not certain whether to join in with the anti-business, anti-banker chorus, or defend the flawed but still successful processes of capitalism.
Last week on ConservativeHome, the always-interesting Peter Franklin launched another attack on big businesses: “they use their lobbying power to suppress innovation and competition… big established companies act as a break on growth and job creation… under the influence of lawyers and lobbyists [regulations] have been twisted into tools for crushing competition and undermining innovation.”
He quotes the American Conservative Derek Khanna: “Incumbent industries have co-opted the legal and regulatory systems to go after their competitors, and both political parties have been complicit in this cronyism. Acceptance of these regulatory and legal barriers is a root cause of our abysmal ‘new normal’ of 2 percent annual GDP growth…”
This is all very well. Of course I also love it when the big beasts are challenged. I applaud the start-ups and the disrupters and appreciate their vital role in keeping capitalism and indeed the human spirit alive and striving. After all, I was one of them when (with my friend Nadhim Zahawi) I started YouGov – the first company in the world to do reliably accurate polling and market research through the internet. Although we are now in 16 countries, with our biggest revenue in America, we are still the upstarts trying to disrupt the real giants of our industry.
So maybe I am well positioned to reply to Peter”s attack. Yes, of course it’s true that big corporations often try to use their muscle to defend themselves against newcomers, sometimes unattractively. Yes, sometimes they lobby governments to get regulation that embeds their advantage. But that’s not exactly evil. And look at the positives they contribute: big corporations employ very large swathes of the population. Because it is in their interests to develop and retain their employees, they usually provide the best working conditions for their employees: it is the workers in big companies who typically enjoy the best benefits, the most reasonable working hours, the strongest protections, the most secure prospects for their families.
While some big corporations may abuse their global reach, most bring good values to far-flung parts of the world, exporting Western ideas of fair working conditions. And it is their products that consumers can most trust for their reliability, because big companies have the most to lose from hurting their reputation.
Start-ups and scale-ups are indeed the best providers of new jobs. They are vital to generating new ideas and providing one form of competition to the big corporations. But they are part of a business eco-system which also utterly depends on the giant companies. Who else is going to undertake the huge infrastructure projects we need? Only massive engineering companies can build power stations, energy pipelines, transport systems, skyscrapers. Without big pharma the NHS couldn’t operate, because where do the new drugs come from? Many forms of innovation require huge capital investment.
If the Conservatives are now to encourage contempt of big business, heaven help us. The idea of a permanent revolution spurred by an anti-big business Conservative government is a nightmare on a par with Miliband’s anti-capitalist rampage. Yet here is what Peter advocates: “In a government truly committed to the creation of a high-growth economy and a culture of permission-less innovation, ministers should actively seek out the representatives of biggest established companies. Then they should invite them in, ask them what they want – and do precisely the opposite.”
It is a shame to see Conservatives joining the attack on corporations, which are often among our most productive and progressive institutions.