If the imminent failure of the corporation tax campaign isn’t clear evidence that businesses and economists in NI need to change their public affairs campaigning fundamentally, not much will be. To expand on my post two days ago, the whole way business communicates with government decision makers in NI needs to be radically re-shaped, and advice taken from entirely different sources.
Firstly, businesses (and other pro-business, pro-market interests) have fallen into an all-too-common trap of targeting a case self-evident to them only at others to whom it is self-evident – in other words, essentially, they are talking to themselves. It was obvious to business owners that a corporation tax would suit them – after all, they would be paying less tax. But was it obvious to the parent of the graduate who is still at home looking for work, who also stood to gain if the tax reduction let to more recruitment? Not at all.
Secondly, business campaigners were also grievously guilty of basing their entire campaign merely on the merits of their case. They failed abjectly to build relationships. In fact, on occasions, they became openly confrontational with the very politicians and officials on whom they were relying for their case to be made in the right channels. “Coalition building” was absolutely necessary – yet far from doing it, they were almost hostile to the idea of it!
Thirdly, the campaign failed entirely to “horizon scan” adequately – in other words, to adapt to changing circumstances. Where once the benefits of low corporation tax were deemed obvious by the economic success of the Republic, events post-2008 turned that on its head; where once NI’s “special case” status could be safely assumed as accepted by a Labour Party which held sway everywhere else in the UK, the coming to power of different parties – the Conservative/LibDem coalition in London and the SNP in Edinburgh, changed the politics of the situation on its head (particularly when the SNP earned an outright majority). Was there even a hint of understanding of this?
Finally, businesses proved utterly unable to state what they would in fact do with the advantages accrued by paying less tax. If they had been explicit about investing it in skills, in recruitment, and in export (i.e. wealth creation), then their case would have been more powerful. By turning it all in on itself, and making it look like it was just another money grab, public disinterest grew and public support was lost.
The final nails in the argument came elsewhere, primarily Alex Salmond’s intervention seeking a lower rate in Scotland. However, the fact that at the end of a long campaign the public was opposed to a public spending reduction in return for a corporation tax reduction in NI by almost 2:1, despite all-party support, demonstrates just how poorly the campaign was run.
The very notion that business, and particularly exports, has to grow if NI is to secure adequate public services and a rising standard of living is still understood by only a minority of the population. Because it is a minority, politicians have no motivation to correct this. It is up to business to do so. Thus, business interests will, first and foremost, have to understand they must invest much more in proper political and civic engagement if they are to get anywhere; they must then demonstrate their own willingness to change in return for political and public backing; and they must also understand that public affairs campaigns consist of more than stating a case and getting a few pretty photos. As it is, they have aimed at a single silver bullet, and then missed it.