OPINION: Building a bridge to businesses

Why have the Conservatives failed to connect with business? The virtues of businessmen, or what they like to think of as their virtues – hard work, self-improvement and an unwillingness to depend on the state – are supposed to be core Tory beliefs, so business should be its natural constituency.

Hilton: City commentator, London’s <em>Evening Standard</em>
Hilton: City commentator, London’s Evening Standard

But business has changed. The days when large companies would automatically pump thousands of pounds into Tory coffers have long gone.

Big business today is apolitical for three reasons: it is so international that UK activities are just one small part of the whole; it understands that it has to get on with whoever is in power; and, after 15 years of economic stability, there is insufficient difference between the parties to get businesses agitated.

There are exceptions. The organisations that represent small business tend to be more robustly right wing and so does the City – the bit that is British at any rate – and it is this constituency that Tory treasurer Michael Spencer has plugged into to replenish the Tory election war chest.

There is still, however, a disconnect on policy.

The more Tory leader David Cameron tries to popularise the party, the more he strays into consumerist areas that can appear like business bashing. Knocking supermarkets, being green and pledging to maintain government spending all make business wonder what it is the Tories really stand for.

It is hard to believe any of these issues add up to much, but there is a more fundamental challenge no-one cares to talk about.

The Tories under Cameron have become more vocally anti-Brussels, hostile to the European Union and opposed to immigration. Yet when you talk to real people running real businesses – not the glamorous stuff but bus companies or builders merchants – the one issue they are united on is what a boon immigrants have been to their businesses, how many problems have been solved by having a pool of intelligent labour that is willing to work and how devastated their businesses would be if it were cut off.

Here is the great divide, not in the clichéd stuff about tax and regulation. Bridging that gap is a considerable communication challenge.

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