Strategy

Business and politics

Mar 10 issue
 

Politicians are often maligned for lacking any hands-on business experience. That’s set to change, however, as battle-scarred entrepreneurs step up to the parliamentary plate to show Westminster how things should be done.

If you’d said to me ten to 15 years ago, “You’re going to stand as a Conservative candidate,” I would never have believed it,’ reflects Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, owner of The Black Farmer sausage and bacon company.

Emmanuel-Jones, who grew up on a council estate in Birmingham, was so frustrated with career politicians that he decided to stand for the Chippenham constituency. ‘As I got more successful, I became increasingly dissatisfied that so many politicians are from the same sort of background, most having gone down the route of university, working for an MP and then standing as a candidate. The reason I decided to put myself forward was to make things better, and there’s nothing like experiencing hardships to make you appreciate that.

‘If you run a business and have to work to make it successful, then you get loads of experience of what life’s about. Running a company is tough, and you need to make sure you know what makes people tick; that’s also an important quality to have in politics.’

Emmanuel-Jones is one of a growing number of business people entering politics. According to the Industry and Parliament Trust (IPT), a body that promotes links between commerce and parliament, the current crop of prospective parliamentary candidates has significantly more business, management or financial services experience than current MPs.

Rallying call

Sally Muggeridge, chief executive of the IPT, says more candidates have a background in this area than any other sector. ‘It’s possible that we are seeing an increase in people with this type of experience standing because they want to get UK Plc back on its feet. The candidates I have spoken to all seem to have the right reasons for going into politics. After the expenses scandal, I doubt there are many who are standing for remuneration reasons.’

However, Muggeridge says that for some top-ranking chief executives, getting involved in politics may not be an appealing option. ‘In the past seven years I’ve brought hundreds of senior-level business people into parliament in order to see how it works, and not one of them has said they wanted to become an MP. It can be tough to leave industry and enter parliament, and it isn’t always compatible with their career paths,’ she says.

Yes minister

Those hallowed corridors of political power are well known for procrastination and the slow asphyxiation of bright ideas. Jim Thornton, a property entrepreneur who moved into local politics 11 years ago and is currently standing as an independent candidate for the Poplar and Limehouse constituency, admits that the can-do spirit of entrepreneurs often clashes with the grinding bureaucracy of politics.

‘The public and private sectors are very different,’ he says. ‘In the former, there’s a sense of in-built inertia because there are so many restrictions on what you can do. For that reason it can be difficult to make things happen, and for entrepreneurs that can be hard.’

Patience, that rarest of qualities among entrepreneurs, will be required in abundance if the leap into the political arena is be made. Philip Dunne, ex-boss of Ottakar’s bookshops and Conservative MP for Ludlow, observes, ‘A good manager is also a motivator of people. The difference is that in politics being autocratic doesn’t work, whereas in business it’s the powerful, dominant individuals who are able to run very successful organisations.’

Dunne says that his time in parliament has been a humbling experience. ‘I’ve had to go back to the very beginning and start at the bottom. That’s a normal situation for anyone going into politics, but there have definitely been occasions when I’ve had to bite my lip,’ he says.

Fresh thinking

Lynne Featherstone ran her own design company for ten years before moving into politics. ‘As satisfying as that was, I began to feel that the world was becoming more selfish. It was the Margaret Thatcher generation of “me, me, me” and I felt there were things in the world that I wanted to change.’

Featherstone is now a Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green. ‘I think the key thing about business is that it teaches you how to negotiate and make things happen. In both areas you have to be determined and self-willed, and not be put off by barriers when starting out. That’s exactly the same for men and women. But in our party, seats are hard won, so if you make it as a female MP you must be tough. To be honest, all our women are quite feisty,’ she laughs.

This no-nonsense attitude is reflected in Featherstone’s dismissal of having recently been voted Britain’s ‘most fanciable’ MP. ‘Yes it was flattering, but also very silly in the grand scale of things,’ she says.

For Featherstone, the ‘make it happen’ philosophy of the private sector has much to contribute to Westminster. ‘Politics is a lot of talking about things, but you need that ability to make changes. When you have a background in business, it gives you a sense of realism about what’s possible,’ she says.

In the thick of it

The desire to enter politics to enact change is commendable, but there are MPs who have been surprised by the baggage that can come with the role, as was evident from the furore over expenses.

‘Over the past year it’s been a nightmare – it’s felt like a daily battle to salvage your reputation,’ says David Davies, ex-tea importer and Conservative MP for Monmouth. ‘I wasn’t personally implicated in the expenses scandal, but I did have to pay some money back due to a genuine error in having claimed twice for something. There’s not really any point in MPs trying to defend themselves at the moment, it’s better to just keep your head down.’

Davies says the experience has shaken his confidence in politics. ‘I feel there’s nothing at the moment that will satiate public anger. I enjoy what I do, but I wouldn’t say this has been the happiest year of my working career.’

In a climate so hostile to politicians, would he encourage other business people to enter parliament? ‘The average time served in parliament is seven years. So the key question is: will you want to go back to running your business? If you are in your 50s and in a good [financial] situation, then it may be the right move. But for someone in their 30s or 40s, I would think very carefully about it,’ he says.

But Emmanuel-Jones is resolute in his political ambitions and says he has a trusted team to keep his business ticking over in the meantime: ‘When I first decided to stand, there wasn’t the current crisis with MPs’ expenses, but I think any crisis is a good opportunity for change.’