Business leaders, letters and the BBC

The corporation’s economics coverage has been relatively balanced in the run up to this election but it has failed to convey the extent of the Conservatives’ ties with big business. 

Aeron Davis
5 May 2015

Image: Flickr/ Stu Mayhew

A key election campaign weapon for the Conservative Party has been its record on the economy. And one component of this involves attacking Labour’s past performance and future credibility. So, we have had a spate of business leaders lining up to say how well the ‘Conservative-led government’ have done and what a ‘catastrophe’ Labour would be. If the ‘Captains of Industry’, the great ‘wealth creators’, think Labour hasn’t a clue, then surely there must be some truth to this?

First we had Stefano Pessina, acting CEO of Walgreens Boots, using the ‘catastrophe’ word, declaring Labour’s policies were ‘not helpful for business and not helpful for the country’. Then, as election campaigning took off, we had the 103 Business Chiefs letter to the Daily Telegraph. This included many FTSE 250 CEOs and celebrity bosses like Karen Brady, Cameron Mackintosh and Duncan Bannatyne. The letter endorsed Cameron and Osborne’s record as well as the Tory manifesto pledge to cut corporation tax from 28 to 20%. ‘Don’t put the recovery at risk’ by letting Labour in was the end message.

Some weeks later it was the turn of 5025 small business owners to write to the Telegraph. Like the business chiefs, they supported the ‘Conservative-led Government’s’ record on tax reduction, reducing regulation and creating lots of jobs. Last of all, it was the turn of startup businesses who, this time, found a home for their letter in the Guardian. As they declared: ‘This Conservative-led government has given us wholehearted support ... It would be bad for jobs, bad for growth, and bad for innovation to change course’. 

The BBC didn’t initiate any of these pieces. But, with the exception of the final startups letter, they did devote ample coverage to the Pessina interview and to the letters that followed. These pieces and several follow-ups enabled Osborne and Cameron to quote the letters in support of their record while also attacking Labour’s. Labour attempts to counter were then displayed as further evidence of its anti-business credentials by the Conservatives and Conservative-supporting press. The BBC have also given space to other business leaders to back the Conservatives.

On a positive note, the BBC did report elements of these stories with some scepticism. Kamal Ahmed, the BBC business editor, presented Labour responses as well as noting how many signatories were Conservative Party members. Andrew Neil gave David Gauke a strong grilling about the Tory Party-manufactured ‘stunt’ of the small business leaders letter. Anyone watching closely could see that the Conservatives had acted as go-between for several of their prominent business donors and the Telegraph. This was a clear example of ‘third party endorsement’ in action, a trick that Tim Bell, Mrs Thatcher’s chief spin doctor, taught the party well.

However, the problem is that the coverage, in aggregate, offers certain misleading impressions that help the Conservative Party campaign. First, most of the coverage leads and ends with Conservative and business leader claims. It’s business leaders plus a Conservative with a Labour opponent in between. Two thirds of the content and sources take the Conservative line.

Second, what reporting such as this rarely does do is show just how tightly linked the Conservative Party and business community are in the UK. The most likely pre-politics occupation of a Conservative MP is business. The large majority of Conservative Party funding is from big business and finance. Throughout the 1980s polls of Captains of Industry found that only 1 or 2% voted Labour while over 90% voted Conservative. Even in 1997, the year of Labour’s landslide victory, only 7% voted Labour and 69% Conservative (see figs in Davis, 2007). 

Despite 13 years of New Labour and a clear continuation of Conservative economic policies (continued personal and corporation tax cuts, deregulation, tough union regulation), the business community never accepted the Blair-Brown alternative. By 2010, with Labour’s ascendancy over, business leaders came out clearly for their party again, well in advance of Miliband’s leadership victory. In February this year the latest Ipsos-MORI poll showed that only 6% would prefer a Labour government, while 87% wanted a Conservative or Conservative-led one. 

Third, the presentation adds to the notion that business leaders in general are the ‘experts’ on the economy. And linked to that it is business leaders who are the real innovators, investors and job creators. As Stuart Hall, the Glasgow University Media Group and others have argued, business leaders become the ‘primary definers’ of what the economy is and how it should be run. 

However, what UK business leaders do is support a particular type of economic model, one that doesn’t necessarily bring sustained growth, jobs and exports. There is widespread business support for lowering all taxes, reducing state regulation or intervention in industry of any kind, and reducing the size of the state generally. These economic policies and outcomes are not universal. In fact, many leading economies, such as  Germany, Japan and Sweden, have successfully pursued quite different economic philosophies. 

But, the Anglo-American economic model has brought on the UK and US the financial crisis, zero-hours contracts and wage stagnation for most, a dramatic rise in inequality, tax evasion on an industrial scale, and a several-fold increase in food banks. It has also helped develop vastly over-sized financial markets which continue to boost bubbles and instability in property, stock and other financial markets, and threatens further financial melt-downs in the process. And, of course, it is an economic vision from which business leaders have personally benefitted hugely. In 1998 FTSE 100 CEO pay was 47 times that of the average employee. By 2012 it was 185 times (High Pay, 2012). 

Unfortunately, it is the same Conservative-business leader vision which has pushed austerity and blamed Labour for both the financial crisis and the huge rise in the national debt. It is a line that has been successfully argued for the last five years across most of the nation’s press and broadcast media. It hit home once again in the Question Time Election Special, which grilled party leaders for the last time before the election. It was difficult to come away thinking Labour wasn’t responsible and hadn’t overspent.

Overall, it would be unfair to be overly critical of the BBC here. Compared to the relentless campaign of the Tory press against Labour’s economic policies, the BBC has been fairly balanced and restrained. On several occasions the Beeb has done much to interrogate the budgets and economic ideas put forward by all parties. But, perhaps more could have been done to reveal the extent of Conservative Party-business collusion here. And rather more should have been presented to undermine the twin dominant economic discourses of the last five years: austerity economics, and governments more than bankers as being responsible for the crisis and debts that followed.

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