Watching the news about the scrapping of the Manchester leg of HS2 on October 5, I was suddenly struck by the sad realisation that politics was business. This will come as no great shock to the jaded and cynical, but I had never appreciated quite how close the parallels between politics and business actually run. The phrase ‘it’s just good business’ is overused when describing any vaguely controversial or hard-line decision made in an organisation but, when used in a political context, it rings worryingly true.
The epiphany came when journalist Naga Munchetty asked BBC political editor Chris Mason why Rishi Sunak would announce the reinvestment of billions of pounds of saved HS2 money into the railways and roads of northern England and Wales without having first consulted Network Rail to know if these plans were feasible. To this, his response was “because it’s Tory party conference time”. What seems a simple and jesting comment actually exposes how calculating politicians can be during the run-up to an election; just as a department store is calculating in the run-up to Christmas. With under a year until the next British general election, the Conservative party is beginning its sales drive to ensure votes come 2024. To politics, this coming year is what the three months leading up to Christmas is to a shop: the chance to do whatever necessary to gain the public’s attention and loyalty.
For this analogy to make full sense, it is crucial to understand that money is to a business what votes are to a political party – the thing around which everything revolves and the objective of everyone’s decision making. With this and Chris Mason’s comment in mind, I thought about the ways in which the methods adopted by a political party to gain voters align with those adopted by a business to gain custom and found them to be staggeringly similar.
Firstly, brand building.
Politicians want to sell you more than just policies, they want to sell you values and ideology, and therefore market themselves as their bastions. In fear that the public may think him a cold, agenda-pushing politician (no nice ideologies there) Sunak asked his wife to introduce his conference speech, presumably in the hope that we too would look at him through the tender eyes of a loving partner. In this laughable introduction, we learn that “Rishi is working hard to do the right thing for the country…with honesty and integrity” and that “he shares your values” and that his wife wants him to know “how proud you make your girls and me every single day”. Presumably, Sunak thinks the public will now regard him as a hard-working, family man who must be a lovely bloke because he has a lovely wife. He did not bore the public with the important details of the feasibility and timeframe of the new northern transportation improvements as that would detract from his intended public image of family values and a love for the UK (and because he didn’t know these facts). In the same way, John Lewis does not burden the public with the fine details of delivery costs and delayed delivery times around Christmas: it would destroy the mirage of the perfect family Christmas that its quaint seasonal advert has worked so hard to build. When you buy a blender for Aunt Susan, you do not buy a mere kitchen implement, you buy the lifestyle of weekend laughter, baking, and happiness that its advert promises to provide. With its slogan ‘for all life’s moments’, it is selling you the ideals of humanity and loyalty and, like the politicians with their own ideals, promises to be the protector of them.
Secondly, highly considered release dates.
Ever noticed that horror films are released almost exclusively around Halloween? Or that the financial struggles of a firm are brought to public attention only at the point of business closure? Businesses know when to release a product for maximum sales and when to release information to best preserve their public image. Likewise politicians: the Whatsapp scandal - in which messages from a cabinet group chat in 2020 were released to the public in 2023 - reveals that the government was selective in what information concerning Covid-19 it shared with the public. For example, the messages between Matt Hancock and Simon Case show that the government was aware that the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme of August 2020 contributed to the rise of covid cases at that time, but Hancock had “kept it out of the news” to prevent bad party press. By contrast, the party was very quick to share the news of the new ‘Kent’ variant of Covid-19 and deliberately exaggerated its potential impact to “frighten the pants off everyone” into compliance with Covid-19 restrictions.
Lastly, the discontinuation of unprofitable products.
No matter how much buzz a business creates around the launch of a new product, if it is ultimately unprofitable, the business will axe it. Remember Google Glass or white chocolate Maltesers? Political parties do just the same. Rishi Sunak laid out impressive, if ambitious, environmental policies in which he pledged to ban the purchasing of new petrol cars by 2030, phase out gas boilers by 2035, and force landlords to insulate rental properties to a higher standard. In the party conference, however, he U-turned these policies and delayed each of them by at least five years. He claims the decision was to protect British consumers from increased costs (expensive electric cars, potentially increased rent if landlords are forced to make insulation improvements) despite The Guardian’s insistence that “business and environmental experts have warned that his plans could end up costing them [the British public] more in the long run.” It is far more probable that Sunak U-turned to attract the votes of keen motorists and climate-change deniers (often more right-wing) in the hope of boosting the waning support of the Conservatives after the environmental policies did little to improve their public perception and popularity. No matter how much Sunak allegedly believed that the policies would improve the country, they did not win him votes and so they had to go onto the festering waste pile alongside white chocolate Maltesers and Google Glass.
Despite such obvious parallels between business and politics, why are we still disappointed when politicians prioritise votes over genuinely helpful policies? Unlike businesses - which we accept are created and managed to make money - we still expect politics to operate as though its sole inspiration is to better a country. Politics occupies a dirty, grey no-man’s-land between charity and business: it must try to better society whilst also succeed in doing whatever necessary to secure voters. Often, however, these two requisites are not synonymous and one must be prioritised over the other, leading to detrimental U-turns in the name of party preservation. It takes a strong politician to stand for what is right even if it costs their leadership.
Sadly, there is no obvious solution to this: as long as politics runs as a democracy, a party relies on votes for power and success, meaning it will be forced into the business-like behaviour outlined above. This article is by no means an advocation of dictatorships, but perhaps a reminder that we should demythologise politics. Political interviewers still grill politicians about their decision-making as though decisions were made with the country’s best interests at heart, and politicians still try to defend them as though they were, even if that is wildly disingenuous. Perhaps we should just cut the pretence of societal improvement and encourage them to answer questions truthfully to reveal that voters, rather than society, are their priority, instead of swooning like scandalised church elders if and when they reveal the truth. This would hopefully encourage honesty and dismantle politicians’ reputation for lies and obfuscation. Ultimately, to stop ourselves existing in a permanent state of political disillusionment, we need to accept that politics is ‘just good business.’
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