I’ve argued repeatedly (both on this site and elsewhere) that Conservatives, in particular, have a responsibility to fight bad businesses. If we want to promote the free market, stand up for consumers and continue to improve the economy – as well as fend off the dangers of socialism – then we must stamp out the bad practices that undermine our case, harm the people and offer the left a stick with which to beat the very concept of private enterprise.
As so often when something is right for the country, there’s also, of course, an electoral benefit in doing it, too. Few people are desperate to hike taxes, abolish property rights and put Whitehall in charge of vast swathes of the economy, but plenty are rightly hacked off with the incompetence, greed and abuses of the worst of the business community. They doubt that a state which struggles to do its existing jobs very well would be good at providing their financial services, their phone line or their food, but that doesn’t offer a free pass to those firms who currently cock up – or worse – while doing so.
For that reason, it’s hard to disagree with the principle, at least, of Theresa May’s opinion piece in today’s Mail on Sunday, in which the Prime Minister makes much the same case as this site has done for some years.
The practicality, however, is more difficult. For an urgent call to action, her article is stocked with very limited tools to do the job. “Workers and shareholders should have a bigger say and a louder voice in the running of the companies in which they invest their labour and capital.”
We remain justifiably dubious about demands for workers on boards – particularly if such positions were captured by politically-minded unions which are less and less representative of the modern British work force. Shareholders should certainly have greater power to control misbehaviour of overmighty executives in the firms which they, after all, own – but the Government’s proposal of a register which lists companies which have experienced a shareholder revolt seems essentially useless. Such revolts are routinely reported by the business press already.
May urges voluntary action, and gives companies the opportunity to act as they think appropriate. Good ones will probably do so quite well, where it is less urgently needed, but bad ones are obviously less likely to do so. I somehow doubt that the Mike Ashleys of the world are going to reform themselves overnight after a fit of conscience. The Prime Minister therefore hints about a big stick, hidden behind her back: “If we do not see sufficient progress, we reserve the right to take further steps.”
The problem is that there’s relatively little that the Prime Minister can do about any of this. She has an extremely big job on her hands in Brexit, and lacks a majority of her own with which to legislate on other controversial matters. Personally, while she survived the most dangerous period for her leadership, the aftermath of the election, her authority is now limited. Today’s papers openly speculate on when she will leave office, and continue to mull who might take over when she does.
The responsibility to take on bad businesses applies to every Conservative. May also knows there is mileage in the issue, and is therefore deploying it as the other string to her Brexit bow. But she is extremely limited in what she can do to truly demonstrate action, and therefore there is very little progress that can be made on this front for now. That responsibility will fall to her successor.