Insights Michael Baker

Red Flag – of morals and markets; sweet FA

Cheerleader in chief for UK business, CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn waved the red flag this week, warning that Labour Party proposals to nationalise public services would cost the country £176bn and decimate the pension pots of millions.  

Impact: Limited. Fairbairn argued compellingly that market forces, “not systems designed to elect politicians once every five years, are the sharpest and most efficient tool for accountability yet discovered”. But the concession to Labour – agreeing the water, rail and energy sectors need reform – was ignored by the party who simply attacked her numbers saying they came from “a discredited Tory party think tank”.

Response: With sardonic praise, the We Own It lobby group, who campaign for public ownership, said the CBI had at long last recognised “the lack of accountability in privatised services”. Cat Hobbs, their director, went on the say that public ownership could help all business to “thrive and prosper” by providing more integrated and cheaper infrastructure by lowering energy bills.

The notion that nationalisation of industries like rail and energy can help business prosper defies logic because while we might own it, we’ll also pay for it in higher costs as producer interests entrench and infrastructure vies for funding with schools and hospitals. But We Own It’s urge to divide profit into “right” and “wrong” will chime with many people concerned about outsized profits, shadowy accountability and wealth accruing to the already wealthy. In a warning of things to come, the probation inspector’s annual report this week said ethics in the private part of the system are being compromised and the work is “too complex” to be incentivised through a contract, one of the best vehicles for determining outcomes and accountability. The arguments against nationalisation cannot be made on cost alone and need to be updated to address concerns about sustainability, equality and ethics.

And if business believes Labour will stop at the rail, water and probation companies, the party’s new proposals to ban companies providing any service to ‘vulnerable people’ reveals the direction of travel. The depth of challenge to business is evident when even Lord O’Neill, a former Goldman Sachs banker who served in David Cameron’s Tory administration, advocates for a state-run pharmaceutical company to develop new antibiotics.

Fairbairn was right to sound the alarm. The challenge for all businesses – not simply those in the crosshairs of this debate – is to re-make the argument for a market-based economy and craft a new pact between business and the society in which it operates. The dashboard is flashing red.  

Sweet FA

Did the Football Association score an own goal when it decided to rebrand as the ‘English FA’ this week?  It said the current name conveys a “perception of arrogance” because being called ‘the FA’ without a national identifier implies some superiority over others, such as the ‘German Football Association’.

In their statement, the FA said: “The English FA will be the home of football in England, championing and supporting every aspect of the game. This includes: governance of the English football, rules and regulations, education and qualifications, referee and international relations”.  

In practice, major decisions in the game are ceded to the Premier League with their £4.4bn in TV rights revenue. Meanwhile, the 155-year-old FA has attempted to dribble around other issues in recent years, including an enquiry into child sex abuse, the prospect of Wembley being sold, mishandling of racism allegations, accusations that its board is composed of ‘well-meaning mostly elderly white men’ and the Sam Allardyce fiasco. It was nevertheless buoyed by the England team’s success at the Russia World Cup last summer and Gareth Southgate’s leadership of the side. Outgoing chief Martin Glenn has been recognised for his efforts to encourage more female participation.

The rebrand news comes as the Professional Footballers Association’s chief executive Gordon Taylor also announced his intention to step down. That leaves the PFA, the FA, Premier League and the English Football League all looking for new chiefs and English football without leadership. A major corporate rebrand in the current climate looks like a distraction destined to achieve FA.