Earlier this year, I called for businesses to have a voice in the general election. But even I was surprised by the prominence given to issues like skills, taxes, exports and enterprise in the first few days of the campaign.
For an hour or two, it appeared both the major parties were comfortable talking about business and that economic growth, entrepreneurialism and wealth creation were going to be central features of the campaign.
Alas, it was not to be. As the manifestos were published it became clear that, once again, there was a predictable lack of interest in the fortunes of Britain's 5.2 million private enterprises from our major politicians.
From a political standpoint, the logic of ignoring business is hard to argue with. Anti-business policies poll well with the general public, and support for intervention in the energy, transport and financial markets show that there is an appetite for state to have a role in managing the economy.
But this idea that 'business' is just another issue or topic to be addressed and then forgotten about ahead of polling day is dangerously misguided. The state of the economy, living standards, jobs, wages and public services are all determined by the health of British business. It might be nice for politicians to pretend otherwise, but talk of economic growth, higher productivity and technological innovation can't be separated from the drivers of that progress – the innovators, entrepreneurs and businesses who create wealth.
Business to blame
Perhaps business has itself to blame for the situation we now find ourselves in, crowded out of the public debate. Business leaders should never forget that they will rise or fall depending on the faith of their customers, and if they treat the public in a dismissive manner, then even normally sympathetic politicians will not be able to resist a dash of populism.
Companies should not be surprised if they are ignored when they chastise policymakers for failing to invest in infrastructure, or for not addressing the skills gap, or not supporting exporters, if they haven't engaged on any other subjects. Having a voice in the public debate means more than just picking a few policies to criticise.
Businesses have a lot to say on the biggest questions facing the country. The top three concerns for IoD members – who range from self-employed consultants to FTSE 100 board members – are the economy, Europe and tax. Few politicians would disagree with this assessment, yet they fail to marry up the goals of higher growth, balanced books and a strong economy with the needs of business for low, simple and fair taxes, less regulation, investment in infrastructure, a flexible labour market and an open and outward looking economy.
These issues require a more long-term focus than a six-week election campaign allows for, so we can only hope that there'll be a great deal more thought given to business once the election is over.
Here's what the IoD would like to see:
A continued focus on deficit reduction. The state of the public finances matter to the private sector. The longer the government remains in the red, the higher the burden of debt becomes and the more money is wasted on interest payments. A budget deficit also reduced the scope for crucial infrastructure investment and growth-promoting tax cuts. Striking the right balance between the speed and extent of spending cuts over this parliament has seen considerable debate, but both major parties have recognised the importance of deficit reduction.
A tax revolution. The UK tax system is hideously complex. Politicians should stop tinkering at the edges and look at ways to radically overhaul a system which creates loopholes and holds back growth. We'd like to see minor taxes – those raising less than £5bn – scrapped or merged; income tax bands triple-locked so they rise by the highest of prices, earnings or 2.5% a year, just like the state pension; and employees' national insurance contributions reformed to help those companies who are creating jobs and make it easier to give staff pay rises.
The creation of an Infrastructure Value Index. Rows over airport expansion, high-speed rail and fracking have shown that the current process is not fit for purpose, and we need to put rigour back at the heart of the decision-making process. The government should create an Infrastructure Value Index to give politicians and civil servants the data they need to make decisions on major infrastructure projects. The Index would rank projects according to a range of criteria from total cost and expected return to environmental impact and speed of delivery, and make sure large-scale investments aren't made on a political whim.
Policies which support businesses strengthen the economy and deliver for taxpayers might be seen as an impossible combination by politicians. This couldn't be further from the case. If governments want to support jobs, higher wages and a more productive economy, then they need to give much more consideration to policies that back British enterprise.