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The general election campaign is fast approaching. Indeed, many might argue it is already underway. So individual businesses and the wider food and drink industry should be collectively asking: what do we want from those contending for our votes, and how might we best communicate that?

For individual businesses, I have a pretty clear view of how best to approach these tasks. Many companies will already have a good practical relationship with the MPs who represent the sites and travel-to-work areas of their workers. It should be reasonably straightforward to extend those relationships to the other candidates seeking election for the duration of the campaign.

Where possible, businesses should offer these candidates a briefing on the state of their operations and prospects, giving them an opportunity to visit the sites in their constituency, and the chance to meet the workers in a town hall setting. Candidates should be encouraged to answer questions and hear views from the staff. This allows employers to play a proper facilitating role in the democratic process – to undertake their civic duty for mutual benefit.

It’s also perfectly proper for business leaders to address their own view of the organisation’s needs and concerns directly to the candidates. This is best done through a separate dialogue. That way, it’s possible to avoid the conflation of what the company might want from its MP with the distinct and personal views and concerns of the staff.

At an industry level, it’s a different story. Increasingly, representative organisations – particularly trade associations – rightly see the election campaign as an important opportunity to present their case, and make consequent demands on future public policy.

I should confess I am partly responsible for this accelerating trend. At FDF, I was spurred on by Jayne Almond, now corporate affairs chief of Deliveroo, and Tim Rycroft, who recently stood down from the leadership of AHDB – two of the best public affairs practitioners in the business. Together, we published increasingly impactful food and drink manifestos at the 2015, 2017 and 2019 elections.

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We know they had an impact, particularly on the Theresa May government, which subsequently decided to abandon its planned radical action on HFSS. I rather doubt any of today’s larger trade association leaders will see the campaign as a platform to take aim at the similar current nonsense on so-called ultra-processed foods. That’s a pity: the next few months offer a fabulous opportunity to have and win that debate, but to do so would require heads above parapets on a significant scale.

But I digress. Tethering that hobby horse, there is a whole range of other issues on which the industry should seek to question the major political parties. These include food security, food poverty and the cost of living, trade policy, the need for a single powerful minister of food, the practicalities of our relationships with the EU and labour availability. There are also questions around environmental policy – which requires a comprehensive rethink on extended producer responsibility – plus the challenge of climate change and its increasing impact on UK farming.

It’s a massive agenda. Yet ours is by far the most important business sector in the UK economy. The central point for politicians to grasp is if they can’t create the conditions in which they can guarantee to feed the country, effectively they won’t have a country. The sector employs four million people – that alone should make it the most listened to voice. Yet because that voice is fragmented, it’s not heard as clearly as it should be and not heeded as seriously as it deserves.

There is an obvious solution. The industry should come together with one manifesto, and one major, powerful set of interventions. During Covid and the Brexit imbroglio, that frequently happened. The alphabet soup of trade associations was taken off the cooker in favour of a single voice. Even more often, as many as 40 or 50 representatives organisations would agree to support a single proposal or voice a single concern.

It worked. Food had rarely been more prominent in the national debate and never recorded more support from across the public. The same tactic would work on issues such as ultra-processed food.

So your business leaders in retail, hospitality, farming and manufacturing should consider sinking their differences to make a bigger splash. You should consider telling them to do so. This election looks like it will set the course for a decade. If so, this is the best chance to put food and drink front and centre in the national debate and have a decisive policy impact. My plea to you, and our representatives, is: let’s not blow it.