Guest post by Dr. Simon Goodman
In our previous post we looked at how both Labour and Conservatives attempted to present themselves as the most pro-business. Here we follow up our interest in political talk about business in the same Question Time discussion. There were two things that we found particularly interesting in this talk about business, the claim that while it used to be problematic to criticise business that this is no longer the case and the different types of business that speakers talked about.
“There used to be a view that if you were anti-business that immediately ended the argument”
This is the claim made by the Guardian’s executive editor, Jonathan Freedland. It implies that there was once a cultural norm again being anti-business but that this norm no longer exists. This is attributed to the ways that businesses are problematic, using for example ‘poverty wages’ and ‘zero hour contracts’ so that ‘people want to stand up again those kinds of businesses’. While there is certainly plenty of evidence to see people criticising business, Freedland’s claim that there is no longer a norm of supporting business is challenged by a comment from an audience member who while criticising Labour, and in particular Milliband’s comments about tax avoidance, states that ‘they’ve made business a dirty word’ and ‘when it comes to business, you go tax avoidance, you go big business and you fail to support the business owner’, a comment that is met with audience applause.
“Distinction between predators and producers”
Throughout this debate about business we can see arguments about what business is, and in particular we see a range of different ‘types’ of business constructed. First, business is good: it provides jobs, it generates money, it supports public services (as Conservative Nicky Morgan says). This is the type of business that there is a norm of supporting, indeed as we saw in the previous post both Labour and Conservative politicians claim to be the biggest supporter of this. However, there is also the suggestion that business is bad: it dodges taxes and it pays ‘very, very low wages’ (as Respect MP George Galloway says). Freedland distinguishes these bad and good business into ‘predators and producers’ and examples are given, so ‘Boots and John Lewis’ are the good producers whereas ‘the Amazons and Starbucks and Google and Apple’ are the bad predators. Freedland returns to talk about what is and what isn’t sayable by claiming that Labour were criticised for making precisely this distinction.
“Not a market system, but a market and a moral system”
Throughout all of this distinguishing of types of business runs a moral argument highlighted through Christian Odone’s quote. These arguments about business are not just arguments about which political party is most popular with business, or about what can and can’t be said about them. Instead there is a moral element: what wages are just?, what is the right tax burden for business?, and what is the role of business in civil society? It is for these reasons that we expect to see continuing debates about the role of business in the election campaign.