In the years leading up to Brexit, according to Treasury legend, officials would ask in advance of fiscal events: “What’s on the CBI’s list?” The Confederation of British Industry always had an expectant audience with the government of the day. The only question we should be asking now is: what exactly is the point of the CBI?
The dismissal of its director-general, Tony Danker, on the grounds of workplace misconduct, is the latest in a series of issues that have eroded the CBI’s credibility. Its irrelevance was cemented by Brexit – it made the business case for staying in the EU – not because it supported the “losing’” view, but because it should not have had an institutional view at all.
The organisation has, in many ways, been true to its motto as “the voice of business”. But business does not speak with a single voice. The CBI’s monolithic approach could not accommodate the internal tensions that inevitably exist when your membership varies in size, scale and outlook.
There were grumblings for years about its management being too focused on “big business” – already afforded access to the highest level of government. And as with any organisation which is seemingly invincible in its field, it began to symbolise everything that was “wrong” with the system. Too much of a top down structure and not enough engagement with the issues or businesses that paid their dues.
There was resentment within government too. Having shadowed and served in the Department for Business, I witnessed the occasional glimpse of haughtiness from the CBI, which had seen many secretaries of state come and go. It took a negative position on everything from the introduction of the national living wage to the apprenticeship levy without really engaging with the critical problems around poor skills and slow wage growth.
Government is at fault too, basically taking the lazy route by talking to the CBI instead of going out there and understanding business, independent of a filter – turning engaging with business into a tick box exercise instead of a meaningful partnership.
Perhaps this sense of omnipotence contributed to its strategic missteps, firstly on the Scottish referendum, where the CBI took a position against independence. Many of their Scottish members then voted with their feet. In that moment, they started to lose confidence, not just of their members but in themselves.
Today, if you’re a British business, trying to get the Government to pay attention to your latest innovation or new deals to generate that desperately-needed economic growth, why would you go to the CBI? It has failed to develop a narrative for why business, big and small, matters and how these businesses contribute to society. The CBI seems to have left a vacuum, which has been filled by in-house public affairs teams but only for those who can afford them.
The CBI has been looking for “wins” not solutions. Surely, there is a need for an organisation that facilitates cooperation between the private and public sector. Net zero, digitisation and the skills agenda all need some form of honest broker if we’re ever to finally reach the future.
We need to grow our economy. If the CBI ever wants to return to becoming a serious organisation, it needs to take a long hard look at itself and decide in whose interest it operates. British business needs vocal backing. But the CBI has long since lost its voice.
Salma Shah is a former special adviser to Sajid Javid