THE CBI seem to jinx every political campaign it supports. Look, its not rocket science if you run a business network that represents member companies. Before you take a stance on a highly political issue you should properly consult and then properly represent your members’ views. You shouldn’t just start campaigning without any member consultation, or worse still, poll a small section of your membership that you know will agree with you, using methodology described in a leaked email (happens) by the British Polling Council, as “pretty dodgy”.
The CBI’s new director general Carolyn Fairbairn needs to take a look at its own Royal Charter and realise that it is not allowed to join political campaigns. Maybe the CBI should also look at the articles of incorporation of its own council members that restrict 80 per cent of them from being able to support political campaigning activity such as a pro-EU referendum campaign or even last year’s Scottish independence referendum campaign.
This week the CBI, which has been a staunchly pro-EU organisation has had to back down from its stance on EU membership, just as it backed down from being part of last year’s No campaign (which left the CBI’s reputation in tatters) and have even admitted it was wrong to campaign against Scottish devolution in the 90s.
Having clearly stated and then restated that the business community was convincingly pro-EU, the organisation’s president Paul Drechsler admitted in a speech to his annual conference on Monday: “There is no uniform view on the subject – neither within the CBI nor among the wider business community.” This was claimed as a major climbdown by the anti-EU campaign group Vote Leave with former CBI council member Lord Kalms being highly critical. Kalms said: “The CBI in the 90s misrepresented British business over the euro and had to withdraw from the battle. It is sad to see the CBI repeating this mistake over the EU. It does not represent British businesses and should stay neutral in the referendum.”
So the CBI has now had to water down its support for EU membership amid claims it misrepresented the views of their members. This is all sounding depressingly familiar. As a business group, the CBI has been a burden, not an asset, to all the campaigns it has joined for decades. George Santayana could almost have had the CBI in mind when he wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
The answer is simple, business groups that are not set up as campaigning groups need to remain neutral on major referendums unless they fully consult with and then receive uniform support on the issue from their members and then pass a board resolution (unless you have a Royal Charter then you can’t even do that). Another major problem for the CBI is that its members are companies not individuals. Many CBI company members and all of its public sector members including Government quangos (such as the BBC) which make up in excess of £12 million of the CBI’s membership fees and revenues are legally unable to take a stance on political issues.
There is also the problem that behind all of its pronouncements it does not actually have a membership anywhere near the level it claims. This seems obvious, yet the London-based media in particular quote impossible membership numbers without any investigation or critical thought.
For example, last year the organisation claimed it had 36,000 member businesses in Scotland. Then, after 20 or so members publicly resigned or suspended their membership, the CBI claimed it had 1,200 Scottish members. However, research suggests the CBI now has less than 40 members whose companies are actually headquartered in Scotland and many of those are public bodies and universities.
Across the UK the CBI claims to have 140 trade organisations as members and so it calculates that all members of those trade bodies are CBI members and that is just a lie. When the Law Society of Scotland resigned from the CBI (due to its need to remain politically neutral) that pretty much meant (according to the CBI) that every lawyer in Scotland resigned from the organisation but the vast majority didn’t even know they were members because… err they weren’t. One leading Scottish business owner told me that his company was a member of three trade organisations that were CBI members and so his company was being counted as three CBI members. He had refused to join when the CBI called him – you couldn’t make it up.
Business for Scotland is ready to promote the cause of Scotland remaining in the EU. Whether we register as an official campaign and spend group or not will be decided by our members. All of our members are individuals and so we represent their personal views not the views of their companies. Before joining they have to agree to our core values and where topical political issues are not covered by our membership pledge, we poll our members every year.
In each of our three consecutive membership EU polls “leaving the EU” has failed to reach even 10 per cent support, our last snap poll in October of over 500 of our members returned 82 per cent support for staying in the EU and at our AGM our members unanimously voted to allow the organisation to campaign for an EU yes vote – it’s really quite easy.
None of this helps the EU-Yes campaign and just muddies the waters for the business and economic case for the UK to vote to remain in the EU. Don’t underestimate how nasty the EU referendum is going to get either. The UK media is split down the middle on the EU issue and both sides will use economic scaremongering tactics this time. And if you think that the EU is not such an emotive issue as last year’s referendum, well it is for many Ukip voters who see themselves voting for English independence from the EU.
The EU needs to be reformed but Cameron’s line in the sand negotiation strategy will get the UK only minor smoke and mirrors reforms which he will present as a Battle of Britain-style victory and then the headlines will get nasty.
Meanwhile Scotland and England remain poles apart on the issue with a new YouGov poll of just over 1,000 people in Scotland for the University of Cardiff finding 65 per cent for remaining in the EU and 35 per for leaving, compared to the 50-50 stay/go situation being found in polls in England. This week a poll by Ipsos MORI for STV News found 74% (getting close to our BfS members poll result) support for staying amongst Scots on the same day a poll in the rest of the UK had only a 2% lead for staying.