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Business cannot afford to sleep through this election

This piece by Michael Hayman originally appeared in City A.M, see here 

Things can only get better — 1997, and not only a song for D:ream but an anthem that swept Tony Blair’s New Labour from obscurity to office.

His hand-written message to the nation was “do it”. Do what? None of us knew, but who cared? The country opened its heart in droves at the ballot box, and voted big time to give Blair a massive majority.

After all, what did we have to lose? The stakes for most voters didn’t seem high enough to not give New Labour the nod to have its turn.  Back then, life seemed a lot simpler. The only referendum many of us were interested in was whether Pierce Brosnan was a better Bond than Timothy Dalton. Now that would have been a meaningful vote.

Fast-forward to today, and Labour’s playlist is a very different one to 1997. Forget D:ream — this election needs to dance to the tune of disaster, heralding in great reckoning: elites that have had it too easy for too long.

For most of this year, that message has had many in business running scared — a feeling magnified by the volatility around Brexit, parliament in paralysis, and Boris Johnson on the back foot in government. This is why so many business leaders will tell you privately that their number one worry is no longer our relationship with Europe, but the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street.

And yet, rather than focusing minds, this election seems to have quietened them. One of the most exciting chapters in British politics has moved on to one of its most boring elections, where the name of the game for the major parties is to say as little of real meaning as they can get away with.

This is having a calming effect on business, which looks to the opinion polls and assumes that the Conservatives have opened up an unassailable lead, meaning that companies can keep quiet, say little, and get back to the day job.

To return to the past again, after a year of Tony at Number 10, Sash! was belting out Mysterious Times in the top 10 of the charts. And that might be a better piece of mood music for today. Granted, as a song it might struggle to make the all-time hall of fame, but consider the lyrical genius of “in a world of illusion you only see what you feel”.

As I have always told my business partner, in dance music there is truth. This is the election of illusion, where the political bet is that we will vote on what we feel rather than what we know to be true.

Take the release of UK growth figures by the Office of National Statistics last week, which revealed that our GDP rose by a fairly unexceptional 0.3 per cent in the third quarter of this year.

These results aren’t great, but they’re not recession either. And ordinarily, they would have hardly raised an eyebrow.

But if you’re in the doom and gloom game, arguing that the UK is rocketing towards an unstoppable recession, the third quarter data was expected to be the big reveal. Last week’s economic reality was therefore an inconvenient truth.

And the trouble with truth is that sometimes it gets in the way of a good story. So the GDP figures which undermine the narrative that everything is awful sparked a dismissive and vitriolic response, and a pivot to a new goal to prove that growth is a sign of weakness.

After all, if you’ve bet the house on pessimism, you can’t afford balance in how you respond. And that’s why political discourse right now is so much noise and so little signal.

Beneath the static is a nation that soldiers on. The UK economy, given everything that has been thrown at it over the last few years, has shown remarkable resilience in its ability to endure in the face of enormous volatility. But for business to draw the conclusion that this proves politics doesn’t matter to the day-to day-reality is a short-lived dream that could very quickly turn into a nightmare.

Business has barely featured as an election message. When it has, it has been about dodgy billionaires and the nationalisation of huge industries, so far away from the reality of most of the UK’s 5.8m firms that it’s easy to conclude this is all about someone else.

But business needs to wake up and make its case in the coming weeks — not least because the void created if it doesn’t is unlikely to be filled with sympathetic views.

This is the election of mysterious times, and business must not sleepwalk into the complacency of thinking that things can only get better.

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