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Given an apparent widespread perception among the UK voting public that politics is all about hype and spin, it may seem superfluous for politicians to take a course in marketing. Nevertheless, that is exactly what they are doing.
Next month a group of about 15 members of parliament and government peers will embark on a marketing programme organised by Bradford University School of Management in conjunction with the Industry and Parliament Trust, a body set up to to help those in parliament acquire a better understanding of business. The course, now in its second year, teaches the fundamentals of marketing, says Julian Rawel, director of executive education at Bradford. “We give them the principles and sound business practice.”
Though executive business training for people in the public sector is a relatively new phenomenon in the UK, it has been popular for several years in the US.
For many of the parliamentarians who attended the first Bradford programme, which finished earlier this year, the course was a real eye-opener, according to Mr Rawel. Many thought marketing was synonymous with advertising, he says. “I believe the people who attended it were surprised by what they got out of it. Maybe calling it marketing is the wrong name. It’s about engaging with your stakeholders.” And, he adds, “I’m a great believer that marketing is just common sense, but sometimes you need to spell it out.”
While parliamentarians who took the course in its first year found it tough, Liberal Democrat peer Liz Barker believes it was also tough on those who taught it. “I think they [the Bradford professors] found us an extremely interesting and challenging bunch to work with,” she says, adding wryly: “We had really dynamic discussions.”
Given the other demands on MPs’ time, the “Understanding the Principles of Marketing” programme is condensed into just six two-hour sessions over a five-month period. Packed into the programme is discussion of all the marketing classics – market segmentation, competitive advantage, using consumer data, ethics and the value of brands. Case studies include the relaunch of the Mini, Dyson, the UK consumer electrical company, and supermarket Tesco’s loyalty scheme.
With less than 20 per cent of MPs in the UK coming from a business background, the bread-and-butter work of the Industry and Parliament Trust, founded more than
30 years ago, is to arrange placements or “fellowships” for MPs and peers in corporations.
The marketing programme is part of a series of courses run by the IPT under the title “Understanding the Principles of Business”. The series includes an “Introducing the City” programme, which is now in its third year, as well as a course in “Understanding the Principles of Finance”. And this year a third programme, “Understanding the Principles of Accounting and UK Tax”, was launched in May.
Ian Stewart, MP for Eccles (Manchester) and an IPT supporter, believes it is a key part of his role to promote business in his constituency. And he thinks learning how business works can lead to better government.
He was an IPT fellow in 2002, spending time in IBM UK and with Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, and studied on the Introducing the City programme as well as the marketing course.
The Bradford faculty successfully navigated between the different factions of participants, he says. “They were able to stimulate political thought in us without being party political.”