James Humpish interviews Ivan Massow- businessman, gay rights advocate and former conservative candidate for London Mayor.
JH: It’s fair to say you’re well-recognised for a range of endeavours and interests and I think over time they’ve become increasingly less related to business and more related to politics. How do you feel politics and business now relate to one another?
IM: My reason for wanting to get more involved in party politics is because I’m not particularly enthused by business any more but my business has always been political and I think I’ve always seen them going hand in hand. I think when I started businesses and realised the social impact they could have, that’s what inspired me to get into politics and it made me realise you could make a difference. So I see them as being very closely linked and as time goes on – I’m sure nothing’s changed that much – but as time goes on more and more businesses are super-cautious about the way they present themselves and may even actively see being involved in certain issues as a positive. I think it was Steve Hilton who wrote a book called ‘Good Business’ and at the time it was considered new thinking and that’s how I got to know Steve many years ago.
It was about how if businesses are good, then they will become more successful. It sounds obvious but it was against – growing up through the eighties and maybe even the nineties – where businesses were seen as hard and cut-throat with the cars and lots of money and it attracted a different kind of personality, a garish kind of personality and now businesses are now making a massive effort to appear more ethical. Innocent Smoothies for instance, now nearly everything they do will be ‘good’. I bet everything that they use is recycled, I’m sure everything they have is organic and I’m sure that they pay everyone perfectly and I’m sure that they gives lots of money to charity and that they have all sorts of special schemes for children and their whole business is geared towards social commentary which influences the way that other businesses have to behave to stay in the game.
Do you think businesses introducing this ethical dimension provides some kind of competitive advantage whereby other businesses understand the component as a good that they must adopt?
Yeah, unfortunately that’s not the ethical component does give you a business advantage but there are a lot of businesses that are learning to appear ethical. I don’t know if you remember when BP rebranded green just when they change logo green when clearly they still used up fossil fuel and were clearly no different. They were still the same company in every respect and would just be more descriptive of what they produced. They were still damaging the planet and emitting carbon and greenhouse gases but in order to remain competitive they had to appear green. I’ve come across this on many occasions whereby someone will attempt to appear to be friendly.
Hopefully the consumer can see through some of these, but I don’t think that always happens. ASDA are a company that are very good at packaging things to look like their branded rivals – when you dig a bit deeper you find that they use the cheapest possible meat and cheapest possible content to score such phenomenally low prices.
You’re politically aligned with the Conservative Party, which over the past few decades has undergone radical change. What part of the Conservative ideology causes you to identify as such?
Had the liberal party been more in tune economically, it might have been a more comfortable home for me. One of the reasons I joined the Conservative Party was that I was economically a Conservative and I fundamentally disagreed with their human rights and social outlook. I was young and living with Michael Gove, working with George Osborne and in junior roles in the city at the time. I was a speech writer and special advisor to William Hague.
I thought I could move the party to the centre. I wanted a political landscape where fundamental rights and fundamental values weren’t used as political football. A landscape where they were off the table for all parties. I think that’s achieved – I’m not saying in any way I did it myself – but I feel in some ways I was part of that internal movement to help bring the party to reflect my values. Whether it’s still the party for me is another question. It seems very hard to get on in that party if you don’t come from the right sort of background and what attracted me to the party was coming from that meritocratic spirit of Margaret Thatcher.
Do you not think the current government is striving towards an environment of upward mobility?
Yes. But in a very ‘them’ and ‘us’ sort of way. I don’t think they mean to create a divide but for some reason it’s been allowed to happen. It might have been that they just didn’t see it coming. I’ve never really felt more alien to the party, I’ve been feeling very much out on a limb.
You were a hopeful for London Mayor Candidacy. What would you have hoped to have achieved in the role?
One – as a Conservative candidate, I would have to win it. I offered a centrist, slightly crazy package that might have appealed to the London electorate. In fairness, Zac (Goldsmith) is not a bad guy. Despite his billionaire pretensions he’s always been a champion for the environment and he’s always stood slightly on the outside. The electorate may well also respond to him. That was my key offering I was hoping the Conservative Party would see. Then I could have gone into all the messy boring stuff like policy. But basically, at the moment it’s all about housing and my flavour of social mobility would have been a lot more about entrepreneurship, tech hubs and more incubator projects – just a massive expansion of that kind of concept. I’d want to create a much more enabling city. And then also small stuff like should it be a one megabit city, should it be highly connected, should there be free Wi-Fi everywhere? It should be a very dynamic and problem-sharing economy.
One of British politics’ biggest characteristics in the last few years has been whether more powers should be devolved to other cities. London is very different from the rest of the United Kingdom. What do you think London’s relationship should be like with the rest of the country?
I think London actually gets quite a raw deal because it’s so close to parliament. People thinks it gets too much when in fact it houses the poorest boroughs. People are incredibly badly-off. They have to travel much further to work and live in sub-standard accommodation. At this time when they’re reviewing where parliament should be, I think it would be much better off in Birmingham or somewhere in the Midlands – Birmingham would be ideally linked with the new high-speed railway.
If we allowed the autonomy that Manchester’s been given – because it’s not a zero-sum game and at the moment you’ve got things like the value of our airports being decided purely on the cost of the airport which takes into account things like roads. The Estuary airport was decided to not be viable but then the East End of London needs those roads. If London was deciding it would be able to match up their road and housing development, but we’re not allowed to. Someone from the government tells us where out airport needs to be. Manchester wouldn’t be having that conversation with government. Manchester now gets to decide where its airport can be, and where its roads can be and it would be in somewhere that needs regeneration and needs housing. We didn’t get that option. Manchester now has control of its health care budget and social care budget. There are massive savings to be made if those two things can be looked at realistically. You need a more joined up approach – which I think terrifies government.
What do you think your plans are for the next couple years, if you have any?
I don’t really have any at the moment. I’m close to Zac and I’ve spoken to him about working together in the future and I’m supporting his campaign. I’m still on the candidates list for the Conservative Party so maybe running to be an MP.
Or actually maybe I should go back to basics and just think about business- because I was more successful at making changes when I was in business and it might be that I just don’t have the skills and aren’t enough of a team player to really flourish under the party system. I find some of it really hard work and maybe I’m not that kind of networker and maybe I should focus more on where I’ve been successful in the past.