Big choices, or mundane concerns?

What the UK general election campaign says about the future for responsible and sustainable business

Here at Corporate Citizenship we’ve been analysing the manifestos of nine of the political parties contesting the UK general election. At time of writing it’s impossible to say which will end up with a role in the future government, save that the pundits predict it’ll be more than one.

But let’s stand back from the sound and fury of the election contest itself, and ask: have the issues that preoccupy professionals working on corporate responsibility and sustainability cut through to the general public?

Most obviously, on concerns about how employees are treated – from zero hour contracts to minimum wages and pay differentials – the parties have traded blows nightly on our TV screens. More surprisingly, in the manifestos at least, detailed proposals on corporate governance, such as gender balance and employee representation on boards, reflect continuing concerns about accountability in big business.

On the other hand, newer issues – such as the circular economy, resource minimisation and sustainable consumption – have barely featured. The LibDem manifesto did include some references to building a green economy, and one if its ‘five green laws’ was on zero waste, but these weren’t central to its pitch. Similarly, the Green Party manifesto sets out an alternative economic vision, but they focused their actual campaign on austerity.

Likewise, no one has put the central issue of climate change before the people, nor sought a democratic mandate for the tough actions needed to counter the threat and adjust to its consequences. Still, if Sherlock Holmes was reading the runes of the campaign, he might observe that on this issue the dog hasn’t barked; only one party (UKIP) has promised to repeal the Climate Change Act, the others preferring to put off the implications to another time.

Ostensibly, the election has been about the big choices facing the future of country, but the campaign has focused on the more mundane concerns of today.  The Greens came closest to offering a radical alternative, but then undermined their credibility by publishing detailed costings of their proposals. The price tag is £250 billion in extra public spending compared to today’s annual total for central government of £560 billion. Few in the world of corporate sustainability think the answer is to leave it to governments and grow the public sector by 50%.

One thing is clear, though. All the parties have ambitions for change, and none have the resources to pay for it through conventional tax and spend. Whatever the hue of the next government, it will surely come knocking at the door of companies for help, willing or unwilling. Those companies committed to a sustainable future need to do a better job in spelling out what’s needed. And then next time perhaps one of the parties will at least find a way to convey that to the voting public.

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