As election manifestos are being written, now is the time for the business community to be the squeaky wheel, and the oil

--first published on LinkedIn--

In a week of royal pageantry and Eurovision festivity, we’ve been dragged back to real life with last week’s rise in interest rates and new figures on GDP. Very few will be unboxing the bunting after seeing the ONS figures which, while relatively positive considering recent economic forecasts, continues to tell a story of stagnation. Even if you view the data through the most rose-tinted of glasses, it is clear Britain lurks as a laggard when it comes to growth and competitiveness.

Our businesses remain hamstrung by stubbornly high inflation (not least wage inflation), interest rates that don’t know how to fall, and an employment market crippled by a lack of both labour and skills. And all the while, the trade barriers we erected around our economy on exiting the EU are a daily reminder to British exporters just how badly Britain has damaged its trading abilities in recent years.

None of this is a surprise: we knew leaving Europe would drive up prices, we knew it would create trade barriers, we knew it would play havoc with the labour pool.  And all that was piled on top of the macro challenges facing the world, including the Covid and Putin one-two.

Disturbing as all of this has been, what is now even more disturbing is just how little progress Britain is making to mend the damage that has been done. Our political leaders have warm words for the business community but, really, precious little else. It may be that the most useful input from Westminster has been to not do something – to row back on its planned ‘bonfire of EU laws’, a legal conflagration with the potential to cause chaos for British businesses, on top of all their other challenges.

But liability for this slackness rests with us all, in one way or another. We in the business world must shoulder our share of responsibility for what’s been going on. As the saying goes, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil, and we’ve clearly not been squeaking loudly enough. 

There are some signs that this is changing: trade body Make UK has called for the Government to draw up an industrial strategy, given that Britain is the only major economy without one, having dumped ours in early 2021. I myself am part of a broad coalition of business groups, chambers of commerce and industry leaders organising Trade Unlocked, a conference bridging politics and business that in June will provide a free platform for businesses of all sizes to get their messages across to ministers.

Indeed, seven years after the Brexit vote, three years after the first Covid lockdown, a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and eight months after Truss and Kwarteng’s catastrophic flirtation with economics, the Prime Minister has also launched a forum, Business Connect, that he claims gives business leaders the opportunity for ‘meaningful dialogue’. While we await for meaningful outcomes from this dialogue, in making this overture, there is a small flicker of hope, a chance that the Government might finally be listening.

Such events are of particular importance right now: a general election may still be many months away but parties are drawing up their manifestos as we speak. If business fails to make its case now, it may well be another five years before such an opportunity comes around again.

For the latest ONS figures do not paint a picture of an economy in rude health. Fractional improvements to a battered economy are simply not sufficient to stop Britain sliding down the various international league tables, dragging our business earnings and standards of living along for the ride.  The faltering economic figures may be the result of the country’s wider problems but, if we fail to address them, they will feed a vicious cycle where lost earnings, jobs and confidence feed greater political instability.

Whatever your political colours, the challenges facing our businesses are challenges that your preferred party should know about, should be taking incredibly seriously, and should have a clear plan of action to address. Everyone in the business community must make our voices heard. That's why I co-founded vocL, a social enterprise helping voices of future business leaders to be heard. We must all ask questions of political parties, sign up for events such as Trade Unlocked – heaven knows Britain’s businesses need all the help they can get right now, and we need a better partnership between business and government to deliver on that.

We are clearly a country that knows how to celebrate, as the Coronation (and, indeed, Eurovision Song Contest) reminds us. But we seem to have forgotten how to cheer loudly on our own behalf, and to force real change, as opposed to acquiescing to those in authority. Businesses need real solutions to existential problems but it’s on us to argue for them.

Make some noise. Force political parties to listen and give answers and perhaps, just perhaps, we will be able to hang up the bunting for business in this country.

Juergen Maier CBE is the chair of the organising committee of Trade Unlocked, a major upcoming trade conference organised by Best for Britain on 20th June at the Birmingham NEC. Juergen is the Co-founder of vocL, Vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, and the former CEO of Siemens UK.