Conservatives: Ignore the digital entrepreneurs of the new economy at your peril

Leon Emirali
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UK General Election 2017 - Daily Sightings
The business community of tomorrow is likely to pay keen attention to politicians’ social media feeds (Source: Getty)

It is political folklore that the Conservatives are the party of the “White Van Man”.

In Philip Hammond’s first Budget, the proposed rise in National Insurance (and subsequent u-turn) was framed as a politically disastrous attack on the self-employed and small business owners, who had traditionally formed a core part of the Tory vote.

Perhaps this was the first real warning about the lack of sound political judgement at the heart of Theresa May’s operation.

Yet the General Election campaign showcased a further challenge for the Conservatives’ appeal to the business community under May. The business landscape has changed; the plumbers and painters have been replaced by developers and designers, but May and her team failed to reflect that in the campaign.

The 2017 Tory manifesto did very little to support the new economy that has been underpinned by the digital revolution. There was no mention of the “sharing economy”, no new ideas around how to stimulate investment in UK-based tech businesses and just the one mention of “start-ups” throughout its 84 pages.

On a macro level, the previous pursuit of a hard Brexit has disaffected the metropolitan and liberal Tories who would prefer an outward-looking and globalist nation. The tie-up with the DUP is only likely to further alienate modern Conservatives, plenty of whom will be the key business leaders of tomorrow.

As is common after elections, an extensive post-mortem will take place to consider why that particular result went the way it did. But the Conservatives are in danger of finding themselves on the wrong side of a clear nationwide divide that could spell electoral difficulty for years to come.

The UK is split between those who are nostalgic for the past and those who want to embrace the future. David Cameron and George Osborne worked hard to tactfully position the Tories as a modern and forward-looking party, but now that progress is at risk.

Due to Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected performance during this election campaign, there can be no doubt that Labour’s position as a party of the left has been confirmed.

More than ever, the business community will look to the Conservatives to champion their interests and cultivate a new brand of socially-conscious capitalism that will safeguard our economy, as the digital revolution continues to tear up the conventional rulebook.

It is time for the Conservative party and its leaders to recognise the profile of today’s entrepreneur has changed.

Today’s business leaders expect capitalism to play its part in nurturing enhanced social mobility and contributing to a more equal and just society. They are also looking for political leaders who understand and embrace technology – and a big part of that is knowing how to use it.

The campaign styles of May and Corbyn clearly highlighted the latter’s ability to connect better with this younger, more digitally-connected, corporate audience. A quick browse online would return a plethora of memes about Corbyn that were positive in sentiment. In comparison, the May memes (centred around the topic of wheat fields, mainly) sought to ridicule and dissuade.

Whilst Corbyn’s policies are of no help to this new generation of business founders and startup chief executives, his mastery of social media helped him connect with this audience far more effectively than May managed.

At my last count, Corbyn has six times as many followers as the PM on Instagram. The reality is that the business community of tomorrow is more likely to pay attention to politicians’ social media feeds than they are the business pages in the broadsheets. Corbyn was reaching out to this audience on their terms, whereas May was mistaken in thinking she could simply follow a tried and tested but redundant model of appealing to the corporate world.

It is anyone’s guess as to where we go from here, but it is clear that the Conservatives have considerable work to do in order to position themselves once again as the “party of business”.

Largely due to our native understanding of technology, millennials are the most entrepreneurial generation of our time. Yet, the core social values we hold often oppose the traditional model of capitalism that is seen to have left so many behind. This election made it apparent that the division in this country is no longer as clear-cut as party lines, and an inability to be flexible and nimble in responding to these new demographics in the business world will cost the future Tory party dearly.

This election result should send a strong message that the Conservative party needs to shore up its support in the modern business community by embracing the startup generation and looking ahead to tomorrow, rather than yearning for yesterday.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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