If politicians largely ignore the power of the lower middle class – voters that decide who enters Downing Street – it’s becoming clear businesses are just as culpable. Many firms find the values of provincial English families confusing at best, distasteful at worst, and are struggling to engage them effectively when dragged into public conversation.
As most readers will have seen, just last week Pizza Hut followed stationers Paperchase in a public apology for running adverts in mass-circulation, tabloid newspapers. Their ads weren’t political – they were entirely focused on selling more products – but they were enough to irritate the campaigners at ‘Stop Funding Hate’, who campaign against businesses advertising in mainstream, right-leaning newspapers.
Boris Johnson criticised these businesses’ cowardice – and others have rightly pointed out these firms backed down amid a tiny amount of pressure exerted online. Thinking entirely commercially, it makes no sense. They effectively sacrificed their ability to reach millions of people because an organised campaign mobilised several hundred activists against them. More commercially dangerous is these businesses’ implicit public acknowledgement that the values these newspapers project – that their readers broadly sympathise with – are extreme. Their decisions therefore pour scorn on huge numbers of their own customers and potential customers.
Of course there are occasions when writers for these newspapers express things in a distasteful manner, just as writers do in other newspapers. But, like it or not, calling for Britain to leave the EU, for lower levels of immigration and, say, for a tougher approach to crime are all entirely mainstream positions amongst the electorate and respectable politicians – and these views will likely be particularly strongly held amongst the sorts of people that visit middle market, High Street retailers like Pizza Hut and Paperchase. Firms like these heavily rely on the goodwill of what we might call ‘Middle England’.
Many people in the world of corporate communications and marketing talk and behave as if consumers are all young, metropolitan, urban and entirely at ease with social change defined by the vanguard of the politically correct left. In other words, they behave as if the country was made up of the sorts of people that work in Central London. The provincial English middle class don’t exist to them, other than as people they can define themselves against.
As such, many marketing campaigns totally out of sympathy with the lives and values of most ordinary people. And, as such, they struggle deeply to engage in the public conversation on political and social matters. Firms like Paperchase and Pizza Hut shouldn’t engage in political argument at all. But when they’re dragged in – as if they have been in recent times – they need to be able to defend their position by understanding the attitudes of the millions of people that live in towns and cities across the country and hold ordinary views. As it stands, with a political and moral compass set by the metropolitan left, they’re unable to do this. Many businesses crumble because communications and marketing executives are personally sympathetic to the arguments and values of hostile campaigns – and are sure that most of the rest of the country is, too.
What does this matter to ConservativeHome readers? Surely what happens to private businesses is their own affair and surely their misreading of their consumers doesn’t matter to anyone but them? To a point, that’s true. But it’s bad for the conservative movement if what’s seen as morally acceptable gets dragged ever more leftwards and if extreme political correctness starts becoming the norm. It’s easy to say that “something must be done” by Government on this. They’ve got more than enough on their collective plates. Instead, this is something that Conservative politicians should address: defending businesses that come under fire for political reasons so they don’t feel so exposed and so they realise backing down has consequences, too.