190,000 voices must be heard
One of Rupert Murdoch’s famous – and therefore probably apocryphal – quotes is, when moving an editorial executive to the role of “Editor Emeritus”, he said “’E’ means you’re out, ‘meritus’ means you deserve it.” Given the revelations of the last few weeks about sexual harassment, rape and cover-ups at the UK’s leading business organisation, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), many high profile members have resigned from the body and there are lots of commentators who are saying it should shut down.
So, to paraphrase Rupert, if the CBI was closed, the recent revelations indicate it would be fully justified.
But if you get rid of the main organisation which has been representing business for nearly 60 years, you need a replacement. Who will speak for the 190,000 businesses which remain as members?
There are some who would say business is well represented by a plethora of individual trade bodies – the British Bankers Association, the Food and Drink Federation, Made UK, the British Chambers of Commerce etc. But that misses the point. You need an umbrella body to represent business on an aggregated level, just as the TUC brings together the various trades unions (though amalgamation has made some, notably Unite, a little overly dominant). The interests of bankers and shop-owners are often in conflict – for example over access to cash – and the Government in particular needs to hear from a body that can reflect all these different views. However, this body needs to have authority, and the CBI’s management and governance issues have undermined its authority.
Once you accept you have to have an organisation representing all British business, then you have to ask whether the CBI can be effectively reformed or do you need to do away with it and create a new organisation? Appointing former chief economist, Rain Newton-Smith, as director general looked like a good stopgap solution, but raised massive questions about due process in how she was selected. In a time of crisis, making decisions behind closed doors rarely helps the situation. If the CBI is going to be sorted out it needs deeper changes at the top with some heavyweight leaders who can not only clear out the Augean stables but communicate effectively about what they are changing, why and the impact it will have.
Whatever the solution, urgent action is needed, because with a Conservative Government seemingly on its last legs, high inflation, low growth, unresolved (and possibly unresolvable) issues around Brexit and a host of other critical issues to address, British business needs active representation and leadership now.