Business bigshots can’t be high and mighty in politics
First published in the Sunday Times on 30th October 2016.
Donald Trump is learning the hard way that standing for political office is not the same as running a business. Superficially it is easy to believe that business leadership has much in common with political leadership, but I think this theory is flawed. Getting elected and running the government are not the same tasks as owning and managing a business.
Politics is about persuading voters, party members, civil servants, the media and others to support you. It is a life lived in public. By contrast, chief executives hire and fire staff. If they control their company they do not have to reach a consensus decision; they can order something to be done. Public administration does not function like that. Even in publicly traded companies, bosses mostly operate behind closed doors, seeing key shareholders privately, commanding the enterprise through a smallish board. The hierarchy of a commercial undertaking is generally pretty strict compared with the fluidity of cabinets.
Personalities are dramatically more important in politics than business. Trump appears to be ruining any opportunity for the Republicans to seize power, due to his obvious unsuitability for high office and his inability to forge coalitions. A better candidate might well have beaten Hillary Clinton, given her unpopularity and the fact the Democrats have already had two consecutive terms in office. But Trump will surely lose, despite his apparent success in property development, casino management and reality TV.
Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn is largely responsible for the appalling poll ratings of the Labour Party. A stronger leader would undoubtedly be much more of a threat to the Tory government, given that the prime minister has no direct mandate from a general election. But Corbyn’s obvious lack of skills as a commander in chief basically makes his party unelectable.
Theresa May recently gave a speech in which she described various sorts of business leaders in uncomplimentary ways. Some have suggested that she was referring to Sir Philip Green of Topshop, and Mike Ashley of Sports Direct. But no one is going to vote either of them out of office. Each has attended parliamentary select committees and been cross-examined by MPs. Such stuff looks painful, but having been subject to the same sort of scrutiny on several occasions when I chaired Channel 4, I can say it is really just a minor irritation.
The Green family and Ashley are majority owners of their businesses, so they will continue as leaders as long as they like. But both Trump and Corbyn are likely to be rejected by the electorate in due course, and to lose their places as party figureheads.
The real way in which citizens could punish Green and Ashley, if they felt their behaviour was unattractive, would be to go on a buyers’ strike and stop shopping in their stores. But that hasn’t happened and is unlikely to, unless the shops offer the wrong goods at the wrong prices.
I don’t think consumers care enough about the pension debacle at BHS, or the underpayment of minimum wages at Sports Direct warehouses, to switch their custom away from Topshop and Sports Direct to rival retailers.
I have occasionally spoken on political platforms, although I’ve never been a paying member of any political party, nor indeed a donor. I’ve realised I do not have the qualities needed to be a successful politician, nor the desire for political office, and moreover I enjoy business too much to give it up. It offers independence, freedom and rewards that even government ministers never enjoy.
Quite why Trump is seeking office is baffling; in my opinion he is simply not public servant material, and probably doesn’t even grasp the meaning of the phrase. Of course the final verdict on Trump is for the American public to make; I wish them luck in their choice.
Meanwhile, I am disappointed that no political entrepreneurs have appeared from the Labour ranks to form a new party to challenge the hard-left agenda of Corbyn and his cronies. Unfortunately, politicians spend their careers working within existing institutions, not disrupting the status quo.
By contrast, business founders are for ever creating new organisations, and launching novel products and services.
The best entrepreneurs are obsessed with innovation — while Labour’s MPs cling to the current, decayed structure, and seem incapable of making any bold, pioneering moves.
A new party — not in debt to the unions, pro EU, with centre-ground policies, and appealing to disenfranchised Millennials — could well become a powerful force.
I think the public’s loyalty to old brands is fraying and they are much more willing to adopt new allegiances than in the past. Doing politics competently is a hard job, and it is unfortunate the public has so little trust in our lawmakers.
Great politicians should possess diplomatic skills and empathy, and know how to negotiate and motivate. They need patience, stamina, self-confidence and real ability to communicate in a convincing manner. They must be impervious to criticism and selfless in a way that is not required of any entrepreneur.
Like all leaders, they must be decisive and responsible. Ultimately, and most importantly, they should have integrity and a true passion for public service.