Credit: CBI

Does it matter if the CBI is pro-EU?

Eurosceptic campaign Vote Leave criticises the pro-Europe business group for failing to speak for British business over the EU referendum. Quelle surprise.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 09 Nov 2015

The CBI is ‘not properly representing British business interests’ and uses ‘dodgy polling’ to support its pro-EU position. That’s the view of Peter Cruddas, co-treasurer of Vote Leave, one of the campaigns seeking an out vote in the forthcoming Brexit referendum.

In a letter to soon-to-be CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn urging her to change the organisation's ways (released to the media of course), Vote Leave said its analysis of the CBI’s press releases over the last year (that must have been fun) found only 1% were critical of the EU.

The CBI leadership justified this pro-EU leaning, Cruddas said, with a poll of its members (71% of whom said they believed EU membership had been good for business) that was ‘out of kilter with mainstream business opinion’.

‘The CBI is funded by the EU, so it is no surprise it almost never criticises it,’ Cruddas added.   

For its part, the CBI denied misrepresenting polls and pointed out it only gets 0.6% of its funding from the EU, for economic surveys. Though it said Fairbairn would reply to the letter in due course, it dismissed Vote Leave as a single-issue campaign with a vendetta.

The spat is hardly surprising. Unlike business (well, usually anyway), politics is definitely personal. One of the best ways of publicly silencing a political opponent is undermining their credibility, which both sides are doing here. But will it really affect the referendum?

Business has an uneven relationship with politics, but in a referendum as big as this one, voters might actually listen to the voice of business. It’s one thing for wealthy investors to say they’re in favour of EU membership because it makes them wealthier. But it’s another thing altogether for employers to say it’s good for business, because business means jobs.    

Everyone knows business opinion is divided over Brexit. The question is whether it’s divided more or less equally, or whether it’s weighted in favour of staying in the EU, as ‘in’ supporters like the CBI maintain. If both sides shout loudly enough the debate just turns into noise, which would benefit a minority side by making it appear to have parity.

How accurately people perceive business opinion does therefore matter. The CBI clearly does not speak for everyone, but its membership of 190,000 (employing seven million people, or a third of the private sector work force) is significant. If 71% of those members do believe being in the EU is good for business as the CBI says, then that needs to be heard and understood for what it is – no more and no less. 


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