Capitalism is under threat and companies now face a more hostile environment in which to do business than at any time in the last 40 years.
A study by the Legatum Institute, a think tank, and Populus, the market research company, found that there is widespread support for Labour’s nationalisation agenda and much less support for free enterprise. For advocates of free enterprise, anyone who runs a business, and, as should be the case, is merely employed by private enterprise, the report makes sober reading.
Across almost every issue – whether regulation or ownership – the public favours state solutions over free enterprise. They want greater regulation and companies to make less profit and be more socially responsible. Capitalism is seen as greedy, selfish and corrupt. What’s more, this is true across age groups and political persuasion.
The support for nationalisation is revealing. Some 83% of the public favours nationalising water companies, 77% electricity and gas, 76% trains, 66% defence and aerospace and 50% banks. Nearly a quarter (23%) even support nationalising travel agencies. Again, there is a broad consensus across age ranges.
So it’s clear to see that the overton window – or the range of ideas that the public sees as acceptable and are therefore deemed OK for a politician to voice – has shifted. Ideas that once seemed unthinkable, let alone unsayable, now seems almost inevitable.
And as a result, many businesses – whether utilities or travel agencies – face an existential threat. And even if they don’t, they face a more hostile environment in which to do business. TFL’s decision not to renew Uber’s license is a recent case in point.
But how should we respond? With regard to specific companies, some of those most under threat have similar issues. Some are opaque, some may be grappling with consumer issues, others may have faulty products or be may be facing legal procedures. These businesses must act, and good communications should follow to begin reputation repair. But most, it’s fair to say, are decent companies providing a legitimate business or consumer need.
More specifically, the report’s author Matthew Elliott argues in a podcast that it was only when politicians began making the case for the free market that these ideas started to gather momentum and become more mainstream. He suggests this is what needs to happen again – politicians doing more to convince the public.
That is true, but it only goes so far.
Crucially, it overlooks a couple of points. The first is around who the public trusts and the second is around the growth of the media.
Taking trust first. Since 2005, we’ve experienced a succession of scandals from the global financial crash in 2008 to the MP’s expenses in 2009 and phone hacking in 2011 to more recent allegations of police corruption. As a result, we feel our faith in finance, politics, the media and those who are meant to keep us safe has been betrayed. The public no longer trusts these institutions and what their experts have to say.
So, if the public no longer trust politicians, what else can business do?
Business needs to make the case. It is business that creates wealth and employment. And the vast silent majority had nothing to do with the scandals that eroded trust.
Alongside elites making the case for free enterprise, business needs to work with networks and communities. Whether online or offline, we trust our peers more than we trust institutions.
Second, the media. In the 1960s and 70s people read one of six or so papers. Now there is plurality of the media. Journalists are now activists or even propagandists. People produce their own content for their own channels.
We need to mobilise the tens of thousands of small business owners and the millions of people that rely on enterprise for work and financial security to make the case as well.
We talk about using online influencers with tens of thousands of followers for consumer social media campaigns, the same practice needs to apply for this. Look at how grime artists like Stormzy helped Labour’s campaign during the general election.
We seek opinions from those we trust. And that’s increasingly not the politicians who would make the case for free enterprise.
We instead need to ignite the people around us to make the case as well. Engaging with diverse groups and making the arguments that people understand and will respond to.
In doing so, we might just be able to change the minds of those who want to see the end to free enterprise, private property and all our pension rights.
This post first appeared on Bright Blue