Business risks ‘Corbygeddon’ if it doesn’t learn to speak up
The headline in the Sunday Times was stark: “Rich prepare to flee Corbyn’s Britain as Tories desert PM”.
The country’s millionaires and billionaires were, according to the compilers of the paper’s annual rich list, preparing for “Corbygeddon” – the prospect of a hard-left Labour government making an irreparable dent in both their own finances and the nation’s.
It’s not exactly a surprise. Among those I’ve spoken to in the business community, the idea that Corbyn is a bigger threat to Britain’s prosperity than Brexit is widely accepted – in some cases even axiomatic.
People who have created thousands of jobs, invested millions in this country, paid the taxes that keep its public services running, tell you grimly that they are more worried than ever before about Britain’s future.
This is because Corbyn and those around him are not social democrats in the British or European tradition. Their manifesto in 2017 might have put a voter-friendly gloss on their beliefs, but to read through the collected works of Corbyn or John McDonnell is to be confronted by the truth that these men are far to the left of any government – or opposition – in Britain’s history.
To give just one example, Corbyn has denied that the surge in Chinese prosperity since 1978 has anything to do with its embrace of the market. In his notorious foreword to J. A. Hobson’s book Imperialism, he wrote: “free market capitalism cannot provide for everyone, or sustain the natural world. Its very imperative is of ever hastening exploitation of all resources including people, and it needs armies and weapons to secure those supplies.”
This is a world view which shows absolutely no understanding of the mechanisms behind prosperity – or even the basic impulse of aspiration.
Traditionally, the job of defending capitalism and championing business would be done by the Conservatives. But they have largely ceded the field. We seem to hear more from the government these days about what businesses do wrong than what they do right – and painfully little about how it is actually helping them.
The job of defending business, in other words, has increasingly fallen to business itself. Yet the same executives who will tell you how utterly terrified they are will also, in the next breath, say that their firms can’t really get involved. Business is business, and politics is politics – and never the twain shall meet.
It’s easy to see why. The polarised, brutalised political environment of the past few years would make anyone reluctant to stick their head above the parapet.
If you’re running a company, you don’t want to put your firm higher up the enemies list of a vengeful Corbyn government – or, more immediately, to see the winged monkeys of Momentum shred your reputation, and your market share, via an onslaught of hashtagged outrage.
Even if you were to speak up, you think, what would it achieve?
During the Brexit campaign, focus groups found that voters were so resentful of overpaid chief executives, tax-dodging multinationals, and crash-causing bankers that pretty much the only major business figures they actually trusted were Richard Branson and Martin Lewis.
True, more recent polls show that business leaders are more trusted than politicians – but that is a pretty low bar.
Some in the City have even managed to convince themselves that Corbynism wouldn’t be that bad.
Last Saturday, one paper ran a gushing double-page spread about how the City’s kingpins are starting to love cuddly uncle John McDonnell, and to realise that Labour’s economic plans really aren’t that radical after all.
But that is a claim which only makes sense if you ignore literally everything that the shadow chancellor has said or done for the last 50 or so years.
And yes, lots of politicians have histories of youthful radicalism that they later grow out of – but Corbyn and McDonnell are now leading the Labour party not because they repented of their decades of folly, but precisely because they didn’t.
Still, the appeal of a quiet life can be strong. Even some executives at the utilities firms on Labour’s renationalisation list briefly managed to convince themselves that if they invested in CSR, commissioned surveys showing how popular they were with their customers, and generally acted as model corporate citizens, they might be spared.
The truth, however, is that it’s not about economics, but ideology. Those firms could halve the prices they’re charging – could give every single customer a free kitten – and they’d still get nationalised.
It’s an uncomfortable thing to hear, but business people – at all levels – can’t just leave it to the politicians or the media to explain why capitalism is worth defending.
On any cost-benefit calculation, helping to ensure “no Corbyn” should be up there with preparing for “no deal” as a strategic priority, for individuals and companies alike.
Otherwise, “Corbygeddon” could be a lot closer than we think.