From the corner office to public office

Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina’s failures to win seats in the US midterm elections have been widely reported with a that’ll-teach-them self-righteousness that I think is misplaced. The takeaway from this is not that the former chief executives of eBay and Hewlett-Packard threw millions of greenbacks into the ring and lost: it’s that they did it at all.

(Whitman’s $140m campaign was doomed as soon as the word was out about her employing an illegal immigrant as her housekeeper for nine years. As she said: “I was new to politics.”)

The list of corporate giants who have sought public office in the US is long: Rick Snyder (ex-president of Gateway Computers and then chief executive of venture capital firm Ardesta); Steve Forbes of the Forbes publishing group; Jon Corzine (chief executive of Goldman Sachs and former governor of New Jersey – a rare Democrat on this list); Craig Miller (chief executive of Ruth’s Chris Steak House); Ross Perot (the founder of Electronic Data Systems, who ran for president in 1992 and 1996); Linda McMahon (World Wrestling Entertainment); and Mitt Romney (the Republican favourite to run against Barack Obama in 2012 and co-founder of Bain Capital).

There are many more.

Perhaps the person to have most successfully segued from the corner office into public service is New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

How different is the British political landscape. Our veterans from the corporate world become advisers to government, not active players in the democratic process. Lord Browne (former chief executive of BP) put it well when he was appointed by the coalition government to the cabinet office board: “This is a role within government but also independent of it.”

A 2008 ComRes survey of parliament showed that at the time, only 13 per cent of the House of Commons had more than 10 years’ commercial experience. Increasingly, we grow our politicians from seed (well, university seedlings anyway) and, by laying down a single-track route into politics, are in danger of lacking government biodiversity.

I couldn’t find data on the current government, but you just can’t imagine British equivalents of Whitman and Fiorina (say Clara Furse, former chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, or Kate Swann, chief executive of WH Smith) running for parliament. It seems to me democratic processes need to be as open to all as possible. The day when we have the names of women who have run multimillion-pound companies on our ballot papers will be one to celebrate.

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