When does a cause become ‘politically motivated’? And is that a reason for boards to steer clear of it?

‘Politically motivated’.

I first became aware of this label in 1983 when I was an election candidate in the UK. In my campaign to become the next MP I dropped in on retired people who had gathered for morning coffee in the town’s day centre.

The manager politely stopped me. ‘We don’t allow politics here. Of course if the Member of Parliament wanted to come in, that would be different…’

Since then I have observed the shifting boundary of what is considered political.

Exxon Mobil has recently decided to sue shareholder groups who proposed a resolution demanding action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. One of their supporters said,

‘If companies are decreasingly able to get the SEC to allow them to exclude proposals that are obviously politically motivated, then the question is well, can the courts succeed where the SEC failed.’

‘Politically motivated’. The implication is that by caring about oil companies and their climate impacts shareholders are failing to be good stewards of the company.

A few weeks ago I suggested that all of us, including company boards, should respond to the terrible plight of the Palestinian people. ‘You’re being unrealistic’ I was told by some. ‘This is too political’ for a boardroom discussion let alone a company statement or intervention.

So when does politics become the concern of those in the boardroom? How much does it take before business leaders need to speak out on moral, social and political issues?

I have previously been sceptical. I worried that lazy labelling and the multiple conflicting uses of the term ESG have left businesses wide open to attack for being ‘woke’.

So, it appears, were respondents to the recent survey which was organised by Responsible 100 and Tomorrows Company in advance of the 2023 Anthropy session in which we asked ‘What Companies Should We Buy From, Work for and Invest in?’

The lowest ranked was the factor called ‘ INFLUENCE: The business speaks out for its beliefs and works together with others to help realise them’.

And yet….

There is growing evidence – in the UK and beyond – that these attitudes belong to an era that is passing. Consider two examples.

The first – and most recent  – example is the revival of racial and religious and sectarian hatred.

According to the New Statesman the Community Security Trust recorded 4,103 anti-Semitic incidents in 2023, the highest since it began reporting in 1984. Meanwhile, the Guardian reported research by Tell Mama, a charity that records anti-Muslim incidents, that there were 2,010 cases of Islamophobic hate during a four-month period from 7 October – a steep rise from the 600 recorded in the same period of the previous year.

Should businesses and business leaders stay silent? Will speaking up make things better or worse? Some business leaders have already made their decision. A few days ago we learned about the private and previously disguised views of hedge fund billionaire and business leader Paul Marshall.

Marshall has been liking and retweeting posts describing Muslim immigration as a stage of “Islamic conquest”, predicting civil war in Europe, and calling for the mass expulsion of migrants. Another post that he liked appeared to suggest that May or London Sadiq Khan was working to create a “Muslim ghetto” and a “Muslim society”.

With a prominent business leader voicing such hatred, isn’t it time the more humane voices of business spoke up to make it clear that Paul Marshall doesn’t speak for them?

The second example is growing evidence that under our current system we are rapidly moving way beyond the safe limits for human existence.

Last September the first comprehensive study of its kind warned that Earth’s life support systems have been so damaged that the planet is “well outside the safe operating space for humanity”.

Commenting on it Prof Simon Lewis, at University College London and not part of the study team, said: “This is a strikingly gloomy update on an already alarming picture. The planet is entering a new and much less stable state – it couldn’t be a more stark warning of the need for deep structural changes to how we treat the environment.”

If this isn’t something to make us ‘politically motivated’ what on earth will?

These two issues are connected. It is hard for politicians to find room in the manifesto for these ‘deep structural changes’. It is easier to alarm voters with perceived threats posed by an ethnic or religious group.

Furthermore, the more we neglect the health of the planet, the more we increase the flow of migrants. The World Bank Groundswell report suggested that climate change may lead to the need for over 200 million people to flee their homes and become migrants.

The objection that an issue is ‘too political’ should become a red flag for boards. It should prompt directors to ask themselves under what circumstances it will be acceptable to stay silent on ‘political issues’.

They might ask themselves,

–      In the face of alarming scientific evidence about global systems breakdown, what are the risks we cannot ignore?

–      As directors what are our stewardship obligations for the wellbeing of future generations?

–      In the face of the hatred being stirred up by others, should we now speak up and show where we stand?

–      What action might the company take to back up our beliefs?

–      As corporate citizens, what are we doing to strengthen cohesion in a society which others seem to be trying to divide?

–      Is it consistent with our organisation’s purpose and values to remain silent on these issues?

–      Should we be asking our people what they feel and think about them?

–      Should we seek a mandate from our owners to speak out in this way?

Mark Goyder is Founder of Tomorrow’s Company and Senior Advisor to the Board Intelligence Think Tank. He is co-author, with Ong Boon Hwee, of Entrusted – stewardship for responsible capitalism. (World Scientific 2020.)

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