Opinion

Political opinion is a trickier issue for business leaders at the helm of SMEs

6 min read

20 April 2015

Perhaps it’s just a case of having a bad memory, but it seems that this general election campaign has seen an increase in the number of business leaders pontificating on major issues and nailing their political colours to the mast.

We’ve had the 100 business leaders signing a letter praising the work the Conservatives and the coalition government have done in repairing the battered economy and warning of the dangers to that recovery posed by a potential Labour government.

We’ve had entrepreneurs such as Duncan Bannatyne praising Ed Miliband’s proposal to scrap non-dom tax status in the UK tweeting that it had got “my vote”.

Now Tesco chairman John Allan has slammed the Conservatives’ idea for an in/out EU referendum in the early years of a new parliament. This, he warned, runs the risk of large businesses moving their headquarters out of the UK.

We know that certain business leaders are synonymous with various political parties – we only need to look at the donor lists to see who supports who.

Their views can only be their own of course – Tesco’s John Allan can’t possibly be speaking for his thousands of employees who you would imagine have a variety of views on the EU and a myriad of other issues.

But as the chairman of one of the nation’s biggest firms he believes, and no doubt hopes, that his words convey a huge amount of power which could potentially sway the thoughts of potential voters throughout the UK.

The intervention of business leaders into the political fray is a positive development.

In the last televised election debate UKIP leader Nigel Farage, a city veteran, tried to take a political advantage by decrying the other four party leaders (Miliband, Leanne Wood, Natalie Bennett and Nicola Sturgeon) as having never lived in the real world, having never had a proper job.

Read more of our general election coverage:

It can only be healthy that business thinkers steeped in the everyday world of commerce and supplier and customer interaction can give a different side to the debate over issues such as the economy and the EU.

They can add to the theory and ideals politicians, their researchers and policy consultancy group partners come up with over dinner parties and cocktails.

Businesses know and fear the effect of some of these decisions and, especially given the precariousness of the country’s recovery, they are expressing their views vehemently.

But businesses need to be careful here.

As said before, their views can’t possibly represent every single employee and customer.

Perhaps for a company the size of Tesco this should not be a huge concern – its customer base and staff size is so large that grunts of disapproval over a particular stance will not have a huge effect.

But smaller and medium-sized businesses with closer ties to local communities and organisations perhaps need to consider actions a little more carefully.

As the election draws nearer the chances of local or national media seeking the views of SMEs or startups to the possible consequences of such and such a policy on the economy will rise.

Perhaps local MP candidates will try and call in a favour from a prominent local business and employer to join them on stage at a meeting or to join them on the doorsteps.

The message is be careful – you will have your own personal views about which party provides the best chance for you and your family and your own views about who is best for you and UK business. But this may well differ from those of your close colleagues, staff and local customers.

There is a tangible risk of alienating the people who have supported your growth if the stance you take on a particular issue, especially something as divisive as immigration or devolution, surprises or even offends. Passions do run high in elections – particularly this one it seems.

As an SME owner it is only right and healthy that you express those views but you must also consider the effect it could have on colleague or customer sentiment. Particularly an off-the-cuff remark to a reporter or a badly prepared speech.

Be cautious and be balanced.

Image: Shutterstock