Just like in politics, the barriers into business are higher than they should be
There are many who would feel uncomfortable with the comparison between politics and business. The former is full of compromises, procrastination and fudges while the latter is seen to be led by decisive go-getters with uncompromising visions. There may be some truth in these generalisations, though what binds these two worlds is how the bar for entry should be as low as possible.
I’m drawn to this subject because I studied Politics as an undergraduate and now work for government in the form of a civil servant. I have recently been reading the book ‘Why We Get the Wrong Politicians’ by Isabel Hardman and was struck by how challenging it was to enter politics, particularly in becoming a Member of Parliament.
There are many unmistakable similarities between my experience starting a business and that described in Hardman’s book. The first is the instrumental nature of money. Hardman states that, ‘a question that unfortunately all candidates should be asked is, “do you have any idea how much this is going to cost you?”’. She points out that Conservative candidates for the 2005 general election spent on average £34,392, which includes those who failed to win their seat. She says that some candidates ‘had no idea how much they’d lose as a result of standing for Parliament’. I know that from a business perspective, the misunderstanding of how much it costs to build a company is exacerbated by numerous entrepreneurs who claim to have started with the smallest amount of money. This includes Julie Deane who said she started the Cambridge Satchel Company with £600 or Geeta Sidhu-Robb, featured in The Times newspaper, who claimed to set up her drinks company with just a £2,000 overdraft facility.
The second similarity is how starting a business or attempting to become an MP often involves quitting, or at least diverting significant amounts of time away from your main job. Hardman speaks about Vicky Slade in her book who stood for the Liberal Democrats. She had to scale back her involvement in the family’s wedding catering business and as a result, ‘it meant that the business started to fail…[and] it was actually jeopardising the family security and the ability to pay the bills’. In the end, Slade sold the business and had to rely on the ‘kindness of strangers’ to make ends meet.
There is also the advantage of being an insider within politics and business. When you’ve grown up or worked in politics it can provide a distinct advantage in gaining a leg up in a crowded environment. Hardman describes when local party members are selecting the candidates that ‘calls start coming from the leader’s office suggesting “an excellent former staffer”…so if your someone with contact inside the machine, you’ve got a much better chance of being shortlisted’.
Furthermore, Hardman says the perception of those outside the politics bubble can be quite different to reality. ‘Many candidates discover that a surprising number of people…think they are being paid to stand [in elections]’. Then if a candidate tried to explain that they’re in fact ‘broke and have maxed out… credit cards’, people think they’re ‘mad’. This is also true in business, which is reliant of pushing a positive success story and subsequently those we met often thought that we were making money from Lashbrook Lassis, when in fact our income was coming from ad-hoc work outside the company.
Some may claim having such a high bar into politics or business ensures there is a sufficient level of commitment on behalf of the protagonist. However, who are the people most likely to miss out? Clearly those on a low income, women, single parents, or those born outside the world of business or politics. What is most concerning is how the difficulties in entering politics are not openly spoken about, as one respondent to Hardman’s question relays, ‘If people knew how much it cost, it would put them off – they should just do it without thinking so much!’. Clearly, such head-in-the-sand mentality will little and lays to waste a huge pool of untapped potential of future politicians or entrepreneurs.