The Confederation of British Industry has a grand title. It’s a 57-year-old institution representing 190,000 British companies and millions of businesspeople that has sat around the top tables for decades. But now following the messy events of recent weeks ending in the sacking of its former boss Tony Danker - who has insisted he was the ‘fall guy’ for the whole sorry saga - the CBI is fighting for its very survival.
So, if it does not have a long term future what should happen next?
It’s a sad and frustrating fact that the rise of the ‘career politician’ has led to a lack of people in Government making policy decisions with a deep understanding of business. That needs to change. As a lobbying group the CBI campaigns against Government decisions it doesn’t like, indeed it says it speaks for 33% of the entire British workforce. What I find odd is that anyone takes this seriously. The idea that a lobbying group speaks with a unified voice when its constituents range from universities to blue chip companies, lacks creditability to me.
So a CBI replacement needs to have a constituent focus. The needs and issues facing big businesses certainly have commonality with some of the issues SMEs face - but not that many. Leave SMEs to the Federation of Small Business. By making itself all things to all people, the CBI has become a hotchpotch of trade associations, FTSE 100’s, SMEs, and everything in between. Big business needs its own voice, and it needs to be heard. It has both the means and in many cases the desire to contribute to a more equitable society, contrary to the belief of the anti-business brigade. After all, the lifespans of big businesses are a heck of a lot longer than whatever Government they’re dealing with and so too are their growth strategies. The successor to the CBI needs to be focused on big businesses exclusively.
The mechanics of how such a successor may work can benefit from recent and rolling ‘scandals’ around lobbying. Doing away with that maligned and grubby description would be a good start. The fact is that big businesses need insight from former politicians and politicians need insight from big business, both now more than ever. The U.K. is losing influence and position in the world, that’s a sad fact. It is also ranked at the bottom of productivity and economic growth projections.
That’s much more serious.
The time for a traditional CBI-style lobbying group is over. The U.K. needs an independent Governmental advisory body representing big business with some teeth, where the language between Government and business can be translated. It’s notable that not one current Board member of the CBI has any Governmental experience. I have witnessed on more than a few occasions after meetings between Government and business leaders that the latter have said with exasperation ‘they just don’t get it’. I suspect the same is said in reverse.
Government and a new organisation exclusively representing the biggest British businesses need to work together and end the adversarial role that a lobbying organisation represents. As a comparison, the fact that the ill-fated Liz Truss Government failed to run her mini budget past the independent National Audit Office as a respected ‘sense checker’ certainly contributed to the end of that administration. When thinking of a CBI successor, just consider that.