The QT

Friday 19 July 2024

Business leaders should pump up the volume

Arlen Pettitt says the voice of business needs to be heard loud and clear this election, then be involved in the solutions to the country’s many challenges
Kim McGuinness talked to John McCabe, the NECC chief executive, about business last month following her win in the mayoral elections. Credit: NECC / Facebook

This election is crying out for someone to talk about how we can change things in this country, rather than just talking about what needs changing.

Whether it is Tory pledges to tackle ‘sick-note culture’ or cut taxes to ease the cost-of-living crisis, or Labour’s promises around childcare places or a publicly owned green-energy company, the common denominator is that industry will be involved in making those pledges a reality.

Either it is adjusting working practices to make employment more accessible, creating more, better-paid jobs, or it is private nursery providers stepping up, or the infrastructure of the energy industry shifting while still delivering a service to the country.

Almost universally, from health, to skills, to crime, to whichever policy area you care to name, progress is found in partnership between policymakers and the private sector.

The nuts and bolts of how change happens are often uncovered at the coal face, where there is greater connection to the realities of people’s lives.

That connection manifests as trust too. People are much more likely to trust their employer than they are government leaders, journalists or even their neighbours.

The Edelman Trust Barometer gives us an annual take on trust, and the 2024 edition found that while more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of us trust our employer, only four in ten (42 per cent) trust our political leaders.

People are more likely to trust businesses than politicians, pictured here in the House of Commons during a Brexit debate in 2019

This year’s report asked about innovation in particular, and on issues like green energy, artificial intelligence and gene-based medicine — all of which are potentially divisive — people trust business more than government.

Therefore, business has a responsibility to play a role. Why, then, is the voice of business so quiet so far during this election? This is especially true here in the North East.

The majority of business representation in the North East is via national bodies like the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). These groups, while influential nationally, have vanishingly small resource in the regions, and limited ability to tailor policy asks locally.

The North East Chamber of Commerce (NECC) has tended to be the most vocal business organisation in the region, given it is based in Durham and has dedicated policy-focused resource.

Typically on significant issues, the business groups work together, and this was the case back in April when NECC, the CBI and the FSB hosted a joint hustings event before the North East mayoral election.

The NECC has made a number of asks for this General Election. These include creating conditions for growth, meeting skills needs, attracting investment, reducing child poverty and improving exporter confidence.

These are all sensible issues to raise, but they are a bit vague.

There is little which is North East specific about them, and very little which could be used to hold politicians to account, nor — importantly — give them ideas for what needs to happen.

Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, called an election for July 4, but whoever wins will need to look to business to get things done

From poverty to productivity, to participation in the labour market, many of the region’s challenges touch its business community, and the solutions must involve it.

We as a region need the voice of business to be punchy, and impossible to ignore.

It needs to challenge our politicians to do things differently and outline the barriers to change as business sees them.

How do you create the conditions for growth? How do you meet local skills needs? How can we reduce child poverty through improving pay, conditions and accessibility of work?

This election is a choice between one party which, having been in power for 14 years, has run out of ideas and another which needs them, given its policy platform largely consists of intentions not specifics.

It’s possible that the machinery of influence has gone rusty.

The Labour Party has pledged to be business-friendly if it were to win the election, but will things change significantly under a government led by Sir Keir Starmer, pictured with the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves

Successive prime ministers and their governments over much of the last decade — certainly since the Brexit referendum — have either had little interest in the views of business, or have been too distracted to hear them.

This week’s labour market statistics show the North East’s employment rate for working-age people is below 70 per cent. Only Wales has a lower rate in the UK.

Economic inactivity, meaning those who are out of the workforce all together, is at 27.4 per cent.

More than one in four people of working age in the North East are out of the workforce. That’s an unacceptable state of affairs.

It speaks volumes about opportunity in the region, about long-term ill health, about the alignment of skills and jobs. It tells us why this region has such a devastating child poverty rate.

Given all that is at stake, we need the voice of business to be heard loud and clear, and it needs to challenge politicians in the region and in Westminster, to do things better.

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