Tories woo thought leaders

Want to make an impact on Cameron's Conservatives? Demonstrate thought leadership

For the first time since 1997,  business leaders are taking the prospect of a Conservative government seriously – and asking how best to engage with the party.

It will be the companies that demonstrate thought leadership today that will enhance their brand reputation with the cabinet ministers of tomorrow – all of whom should be smart enough to look to the private sector for support and inspiration.

The politics of opposition and government are quite different, but the work that Cameron’s team – led by
Francis Maude – is doing now will help the party hit the ground running should it win the next general election.

Cameron’s first manifesto will ask more of the corporate sector than rec­ent governments have. However, he will also pledge to reduce state interference through tax changes and deregulation if companies invest in corporate responsibility – a new quid pro quo.

So business could win with the Conservatives if it can demonstrate responsibility on socioeconomic issues. Working at party HQ as an adviser to the shadow cabinet taught me that business will have to take risks and show leadership on core policy areas.

On consumer wellbeing, individual responsibility remains ideologically important, but social responsibility will be demanded of corporations.

And the party’s commitment to the environment is not faddish. Its widely praised low-carbon economy ‘green paper’ demonstrates the extent to which sustainability is central to the party’s values and thinking. Business must be willing to match this commitment if it expects a good hearing under a Cameron administration.

On public services, the Conservatives are unlikely to pause Labour’s market-based reform programme. So demand for private sector services delivery will increase, but so will conditions for contracts. These will be designed to insulate the party from any fallout from private sector foul-ups, which have dogged some Labour ministers.

Any notion that the Conservatives are going to be uncritical friends of business are outdated. Cameron has spelt out his feelings on the role of business in Britain on many occasions, not least when launching ‘responsibility deals’.

One of TLG’s founders, Malcolm Gooderham, advised the party on the upsides and potential pitfalls of this initiative, and the party went on to dem­and regulatory reform and more emphasis on proactive work by the private sector. Wisely the party handed the first responsibility deal – on producer waste – to Archie Norman.

Where relevant, business should not only be working with his team, but making suggestions to Oliver Letwin’s policy unit about meeting public policy objectives through initiatives such as the responsibility deals.

In reality the door is wide open for coherent and constructive policy suggestions. To be seen and heard, corporate Britain needs to demonstrate creative thinking and leadership.

The best way to do so is through thought leadership campaigning. It demands a closer relationship with consumer trends and a willingness to take a leadership position to forge a values-based connection. It means demonstrating leadership on an issue that influences stakeholder opinion while enhancing brand reputation. A thought leadership approach articulates what a brand stands for, letting it develop a compelling narrative.

Our Index of Thought Leadership – published annually in conjunction with Populus and Henley Business School – has revealed a significant correlation between thought leadership and positive corporate reputations. Developing such a strategy makes both political and commercial sense.

Views in brief

What effect would a compulsory register of lobbyists and clients have?

It would give journalists a new source for stories.

Special adviser to watch? Why?

Dan Corry, Number 10’s new economic task force leader. The economy will be the defining issue of the next election.

Your yacht is moored off Corfu but Mandelson, Osborne, Rothschild and Deripaska aren’t available. Who is on your fantasy guest list?
Entertainment before politics: Heston Blumenthal, Kings of Leon, Boris Johnson and actress/model Victoria Silvstedt.

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