A nation of shopkeepers – how Conservatives should talk to the country

Forward Magazine Summer

This article first appeared in Forward Magazine, Summer 2013, read the full magazine here.

You can’t talk to everyone in a room at once. That’s  why successful speech-makers create a picture in their mind of a person sitting somewhere in the audience; they then talk to that person. By making the content, tone, pace and language of the speech relevant to that imagined person, far more people in the room will be engaged than if the speech tries to pitch to everybody.

As a Party we have always been at our best, and most successful, when we broaden our appeal. In the heady days of Conservative governments of the 80s we had support from union members, white van drivers, working and stay at home mums. We held seats in Wales, Scotland, urban London and the North of England. We are once again trying to reach out to people who should and could support us but currently don’t. If we try to talk to each of these groups at once our message will become cluttered, confused and ultimately lost. We need to find the political equivalent of our one person in the audience.

I strongly believe that the person we should be aiming to have a conversation with is the owner/manager of a small business. Those local entrepreneurs should become the modern-day “our people”. Let me explain why.  Margaret Thatcher famously equated the British economy with the family budget run by the matriarch of the house. People understood what she meant because even if they weren’t housewives themselves they were close enough to that experience for the analogy to be meaningful. Many of the people she was talking to were indeed housewives, and in a political era when women were too often overlooked and ignored it was refreshing for a political leader to recognise them.

Many of the same reasons are true of our small business sector. While big businesses are often misunderstood or viewed with cynicism or distrust, people “get” small business, they like small business and they admire the people who set them up. When we talk to SMEs (Small and Medium sized Enterprises) we will find that we also talk to everyone who feels an affinity with them.

Just as importantly, we will be talking to hundreds of thousands of business people who currently feel ignored. Back in the 1970s female voters were often considered as an unthinking adjunct to the man of the house, and political messaging was aimed at him rather than him and her. Margaret Thatcher changed that and in doing so brought a host of new voters into the Conservative fold. We have an opportunity to do the same with the UK small business community, and the small business community isn’t small.

Because of the nature of the sector it is difficult to get accurate figures, but the Federation of Small Businesses estimates that, of the 4.8 million businesses in the UK, SMEs account for over 99% of all private sector businesses, 59% of private sector employment and 48% of private sector turnover. There are an estimated three million sole proprietors.

These are all people who not only understand the importance of capitalism, deregulation, enterprise, security and choice, they’re living it. I’m not claiming that every sole trader or small business owner is an automatic Conservative but they will have a greater natural understanding that living beyond your means isn’t sustainable. They know that borrowing to buy plant, machinery or stock is very different to borrowing money to cover the payroll each month.

Big business is very London-centric, and the top echelons are still dominated by middle-aged, middle-class white men (not their fault but true none the less). Small businesses tends to be much more geographically and demographically diverse. If we, as a Party, want to talk to more Asians, Africans, Caribbeans, Latin Americans, women, young people, urban people, people from the North, people from state schools, etc, etc, we could do a lot worse than talk to our nation’s entrepreneurs. That’s where we’ll find them and that’s where we have something to say to them too.

Clearly I’m not suggesting we talk about business issues and nothing else. Some of our most important and innovative policy areas like education and welfare reforms aren’t directly linked to business. But when describing our ideas, actions and plans we should do so as if to that business owner.  They’re not idiots but they’re not experts either.

Focusing our thinking and our messaging will be good discipline for us as a Party. As we move towards a string of key elections over the next few years (European and local government next year, General Election in 2015, and London Mayoral and Assembly elections in 2016) we need to make sure we are heard by as wide a range of potential voters as possible. The people of our vibrant, exciting and diverse small business sector are “our people”, and if we don’t recognise that we only have ourselves to blame.

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