The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is the most powerful business lobby in the UK. It was formed in 1965. The CBI labels itself as ‘the voice of British business’:
"The CBI is the UK's top business lobby organisation. Our specialist services and unmatched influence with government, policymakers, legislators, and unions mean we can get the best deal for business at home and abroad."
It both formulates and promotes business friendly government policy and opposes policies, such as environmental and labour protection policies that are thought to interfere with business.
The CBI claims that its ‘views on all business issues are regularly sought by Government at the highest levels’ and ‘No other business organisation has such an extensive network of contacts with Government ministers, MPs, civil servants, opinion formers and the media.’
According to the UK-based Corporate Watch few government ‘policies or bills are written without extensive consultation with the CBI. It has daily contact with every level of government, with civil servants, with Ministers (including the PM), and once a bill reaches Westminster with MPs.’
In 1999 its website opened with a quote from Prime Minister Tony Blair: ‘The Government strongly supports business, and we work closely with the CBI as a key representative of business in Britain.’
When the UK took over the presidency of the EU in 1998, the CBI noted that it would be ‘working closely with the UK Government to ensure that business issues are at the forefront of the agenda’. Its goal of reducing business regulation has resulted in the UK being one of the least regulated nations in the world, according to the World Bank.
The CBI’s influence over government comes mainly from the fact that it claims to represent a broad sector of the business community, one that employs 40 percent of the workforce (about half of these through membership of trade associations). However the CBI also has influence because it shares the same free market ideology as key government ministers and it claims to know what will harm business prospects and competitiveness and cause job losses. Its views on these matters are often accepted by government ‘at face value’.
Unlike the US BRT, the CBI’s members are not limited to large corporations. More than half its 3000 individual company members are smaller firms employing less than 200 people. Eighty of the UK’s largest public companies listed in the FTSE 100 are also members. Transnational companies operating in the UK are also members. Its membership includes trade associations, employer associations and professional associations. Because of the membership of these associations the CBI claims to represent some 250,000 firms employing around half the UK workforce, giving it “unrivalled influence with the UK government”.
Despite its membership diversity, the CBI does manage to present a united business front on many issues. A Friends of the Earth report on the CBI, Hidden Voices, claims this is because of the way policy is formulated using specially selected standing committees that are not representative of the full membership. The membership of these committees is not communicated to the wider membership. The Director General and senior communications staff then have the final say on the public position of the CBI. This arrangement makes it:
convenient for a company wanting to protect its reputation to hide behind the CBI when it has a controversial view on public policy with which it does not wish to be associated. So despite these conflicting views the CBI continues to insist to the Government that there is a unified voice from business on key policy issues when clearly there is not.