Guest post by Dr. Simon Goodman
The identities and resilience in communities and organisations (IRCO) team in the Centre for Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement at Coventry University have begun research into the campaign for the upcoming general election. We’ve only just begun this project, and while there will be plenty to discuss as the campaign gets going we’re already seeing some trends/patterns in the way election issues are being discussed.
For now we’ve started looking at the BBC’s Question Time as this is a key programme where we get to see politicians from different parties and organisations interact with each other and the audience. It’s perhaps not surprising that the economy is a key issue that has dominated Question Time in the past month, and as many of the IRCO team are particularly interested in issues around poverty, public services and income inequality, all emotive topics, it’s this topic that we’ve focussed on and that will be discussed here.
Last week’s Question Time began with the question ‘is Labour billy no mates in the UK business community?’, a question that implies that Labour is not an ally of British business and references some ongoing debate about Labour’s relationship with business, and in particular Labour leader Ed Milliband’s criticism of the Boots director. The responses to this question led to a discussion of the role of businesses in wealth creation and also income inequality.
The Conservative party representative Nicky Morgan presents Boots in a particularly positive way, stating they employ 70000 people who are therefore ‘taking home a pay packet’. Rather than addressing Labour’s suggestion that there is an issue of tax avoidance she argues that they contribute a huge amount in tax (‘over half a billion pounds in various taxes’). These taxes are then presented as paying for hospitals and schools, which allows her to make the claim that ‘attacking businesses like Boots is just really bad for the country’. This claim allows her to present the Labour party as not just bad or unfair, but bad for the whole country. Criticising Boots is therefore equated with attacking the country which means that attacking business is anti-patriotic, whereas supporting business is presented as caring for the country.
After this comment the Labour representative Tristram Hunt responds, first by claiming that ‘we certainly didn’t attack Boots’. After distancing his party from this claim he goes on to offer support for ‘businesses in the UK, working hard, employing people, making money, delivering returns to their shareholders making a profit, making wealth that funds as Nicky says public services’. At this point there is agreement between the two parties, so that Hunt even refers Morgan’s point to agree with it. He then goes on to attempt to argue that Labour is more pro-business that the Conservatives. There is clearly a consensus that business is good so that both parties attempt to present themselves as most business friendly. However, a little later, after again making a show of his support for ‘business people’ he makes a point about tax: ‘you’re based in Monaco for tax reasons you shouldn’t be lecturing the British people about how they should vote and nor should you be lecturing British businesses about what British business needs when you yourself are not based in Britain’. This comment results in applause from the audience indicating that it is a popular point. This point works to distinguish criticisms of business from criticisms of tax avoidance, it also challenges Morgan’s claim that Labour’s criticism of Boots was an attack on the country and un-patriotic, by drawing on a counter patriotic argument that tax avoidance is contrary to British interests.
This is a very brief exchange, so we have to be careful about drawing conclusions from it, but it certainly seems that the two major British parties are competing to present themselves as the most pro-business while simultaneously attempting to present themselves as the most patriotic. It will be interesting to see how these two arguments develop throughout the election campaign.