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1 May 2015

Politics is everyone’s business: in defence of business leaders who reveal their party allegiance

Why it's wrong to admonish the potential future CBI chief for backing the Tories.

By Richard Morris

I own and run a business. I’m also a Lib Dem. And so, in two short sentences, I apparently have ruled myself out of ever being President of the CBI.

For if the reports are true, that’s what’s likely to happen to Paul Walsh. The former CEO of Diageo and non-exec Chairman of Compass Group had been heavily tipped to become the new President of the CBI and all appeared to be proceeding smoothly. Then news broke that Walsh was one of the signatories to the letter in The Daily Telegraph from one of the 100 business leaders suggesting an incoming Labour government would threaten the recovery. And now it seems the offer of the Presidency may be withdrawn.

It hardly comes as a huge revelation that numerous captains of industry are Conservative voters (even if Labour weighed in with an attack on Walsh for potentially impugning the neutrality of the CBI). And any decision to drop Walsh seems wrongheaded.

Just for starters, from now on, every incoming President of the CBI is going to be asked their political allegiance. Answer honestly and they immediately get ruled out of the running. Decline to answer and they look evasive – and start the hares running to find out if they happen to spend some of their downtime writing large cheques to their local Conservative Association.

Are we really saying that people running the CBI or the Institute of Directors or any one of the hundreds of trade associations in the UK can take no active interest in politics?  It’s been suggested that in Walsh’s case it was the high-profile nature of the declaration that was the issue. Really? So where is the line drawn? A letter to a newspaper? A poster in a window? Doing a round of leafleting?

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Nor do I buy the argument that the issue is that he is using his business role to promote a political party. If those 100 business leaders had just signed their names without appending their company’s monikers, do folk honestly think we wouldn’t know who those FTSE 100 leaders work for?

Sticking your neck out and stating you political allegiance is a brave thing to do – trust me, you get a lot of flack for it. We should be admiring of people in every walk of life who are willing to publicly state that loyalty or belief – whether they’re the Chairman of a FTSE 100 company or a householder with a poster staked in the front garden.

Currently every party is stuffed full of folk who have never had a career outside politics. The cry to get more people with a wider experience of life into politics is one we hear over and over again. Yet when people do get involved – and let’s not forget both Labour and the Lib Dems have published their own letters from workers and business leaders backing each of them – they get attacked for putting their head above the parapet.

Criticise what people say by all means – that’s the essence of political debate. But punishing them for getting involved in the debate at all – that’s just plain illiberal. And making judgments like that is just what I thought the CBI was trying to avoid.