How far should business influence policy?

The big news of the first week of the Campaign was the National Insurance issue, and the endorsement by 100+ businessmen of the Conservative plan partly to abandon Labour’s proposed NI hike.  Soon afterwards, if less prominently, a London business lobby group “London First” criticised the Tories’ immigration plans, on the grounds that they would threaten Britain’s position as a global player – and specifically that they would “upset the Chinese and the Indians”.  This all raises the question: what sort of voice should business have in essentially political questions? 
 
Vince Cable professed himself “nauseated” by the idea that well-paid business people should even take a view on the NI question.  Here were these fat cats earning six-figure salaries.  What did they know about ordinary folk on average incomes? (Though it could be countered that these 100 businessmen may well know something about folk on ordinary incomes, since they employ half a million of them).  I even heard suggestions that the business group was backing the Tories in a self-serving way, because their real agenda was to block Labour’s proposed 50% income tax rate – an outrageous attempt to personalise and trivialise a serious discussion.
 
The fact is that these businessmen are in the best position to know exactly what effects a hike in the NI jobs tax will have on their employees and their businesses, on recruitment and retention and employment.  Not only are they entitled to a view – they are entitled to be heard with respect (as Labour failed to do), as theirs is an informed view, and we ignore it at our peril.  Stuart Rose of M&S said specifically that while he’d prefer no tax rises at all, he felt that a rise in VAT would do less economic damage to the recovery than a jobs tax.  Coming from one of the UK’s largest retailers, that’s a telling point.
 
So should we give equal credence and respect to the protests on immigration policy?  I’d say NO (and not only because “London First” appears to be a Labour front organisation).  The NI issue is a very direct business/employment issue.  Immigration, on the other hand, while it affects business, has much broader social implications.  As Frank Field argues so cogently today, immigration is creating huge pressures on the education system, on health, and on housing.  It is threatening to drive up the population of our crowded Island to 70 million.  The problems are not only those of numbers, but of language and culture.  It was reported yesterday that in over 1500 schools in England, native English speakers are in a minority.  No matter how much we welcome diversity, that’s a real problem for schools and teachers.
 
It also threatens social cohesion.  We should not be opposed to change for its own sake, but it is a fact, whether we like it or not, that radical, rapid and sudden change creates quite understandable concerns amongst British citizens – and not only white British citizens.  Arguably such concerns impact even more on established British citizens from ethnic minorities.
 
The business leaders may appreciate the effect of large-scale immigration in holding down wage inflation.  Clearly lower-paid workers will not see it in the same light.  So my conclusion is simple: we should weigh the words and recommendations of the business community with due regard to the issue.  They deserve greater weight on business issues, like NI, than they do on issues with a much broader social dimension, like immigration.

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