The Conservatives have traditionally been the party of big business, so this year’s Ipsos MORI Captains of Industry study of FTSE 500 executives has some tough messages. Confidence in the Government’s economic policy is at its lowest level since 2010 – which is also the lowest level for a Conservative Government since the survey began in the 1970s. As with the public, two thirds of business leaders do not feel confident in the Government’s ability to negotiate a good Brexit deal. Companies want reassurances around their key issues: securing a transition period, reducing the level and complexity of regulation and ensuring they can still recruit staff from outside the UK where necessary.
In terms of the economy, we go into 2018 with two-thirds of our Captains expecting the economy will suffer. However, last year 65% of respondents predicted that business would be worse by now, but when asked a year later, only 56% of Captains felt it had weakened. They also generally feel positive about their own businesses – with more than half believing their own companies will improve this year, so perhaps a case of public pessimism but personal optimism.
Brexit dominates everything – 94% see it as the most important issue facing British business, but with the scandal over the Presidents Club and #timesup dominating the news, and with mandatory publication of their gender pay gaps this April, gender equality is also something they are reflecting on. Some 88% of FTSE 500 bosses say they are committed to championing diversity in their workforce, but they aren’t making much progress. Maybe 2018 will be the year when positive intentions have to turn into action. The study shows that 89% of the many companies with no women at all on their executive board are apparently equally “committed” to diversity.
Despite the FTSE 500’s best intentions, little has changed for women. Ultimately, while Captains of Industry say that honesty and integrity are key in how they judge companies (96% mention it), along with quality of management and products and services, they see corporate social responsibility as least important in judging a business (41%). The low priority attached to this by this largely male group of senior leaders has not changed in recent years despite all the flak business gets over environmental, social and tax issues, and perhaps diversity in practice is another ‘nice to have’. Until something fundamentally changes, it is likely to remain so.
- Ben Page is chief executive of Ipsos MORI and wrote this article for the Times Red Box