The most important influence on how Britain will vote on 23 June is unlikely to be President Obama, David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, or Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.
The unsung persuader in this vote will be a friend or colleague at work.
There are 5.4m businesses in the UK and a total of 31m employees. Each has a vital stake in the outcome of this referendum. In or Out, every employee’s future, in terms of the nation’s prosperity, will change and impact both the private and public sectors.
It is the business world and the workplace that should be the fulcrum of discussion on Brexit. And while some heavyweight chief executives have spoken out – BAE’s Sir Roger Carr, JD Wetherspoons’ Tim Martin – the debate has overwhelmingly been dominated by the political-media elites, who have colonised it as their own little private contest.
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Even the world’s number one politician-communicator, the President of the United States, was wheeled out as if to further emphasise that this is a process reserved for the elite.
As a result, the referendum is a variation of an electoral contest for the House of Commons or the European Parliament. The jobsworth Electoral Commission has produced a series of rulings that are based on the assumption that the main Leave or Remain camps are the same as the major parties that contest an election.
Chief executives are frightened of engaging in the referendum, or of communicating with employees for fear that they will fall foul of some faceless factotum at the Electoral Commission who can initiate legal action for some violation of hazy and ill-defined rules.
Such rules are necessary when choosing an MP and, via that choice, which Prime Minister and government holds power in the nation. But anyone who has spoken to British or foreign-owned firms in the UK to ask whether they will be talking to their employees about the impact on their firm of a Yes or No vote is told “sorry, that’s too political, too controversial”.
It is true that, until recently, the Conservative Party, which has the natural allegiance of most business owners and senior executives, has been seen as Eurosceptic – ever since William Hague set the Tories on a course of hostility to European integration in 1997. Hague and his successors never found the kind of positive words about Europe that David Cameron or George Osborne now utter as they extoll the virtues of EU membership.
Moreover, so far this century, the mass circulation newspapers – broadsheet and tabloid – have, with modest exceptions, been strongly anti-EU. So business, taken as a whole, has not been given any arguments from their political friends or the papers they read to be positive about Europe.
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Now, of course, as the rulers of the state realise what a Brexit might mean for the UK’s global trade and foreign direct investment position, pro-EU language has become the order of the day.
But the pro and anti-Brexit exchanges on television, and the open civil war in the Conservative Party, are turning off voters – as anyone who has been canvassing can report. Labour’s descent into the abyss of its anti-semitism row, or its disastrous showing in the Scottish Parliament elections, means that Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to be listened to on the EU. And in any event, he has no record of being an enthusiastic pro-European.
If the referendum is seen as just another partisan political contest reserved for the big-name politicians, it will be shunned by many voters.
The way to change that is to encourage each firm, big or small, to produce internal reports about the impact of Brexit on the future fortunes of the company.
Done via email or internal office meetings and, where appropriate, jointly with unions representing the 6.4m unionised British workers, such in-house discussion of what Brexit might mean costs little – and, provided there is no formal injunction to vote, can stay within the Electoral Commission rules.
The referendum and the significance of the decision on 23 June are too important to be categorised as political and controversial, giving business the excuse to pull the duvet over its head until it is all over.
Companies should not be put off discussing Brexit with employees and clients for fear of some slapdown by the Electoral Commission jobsworths. The stakes are too high.
Thirty one million employees in Britain deserve better leadership from their firms, as their votes will decide the future of British business.