ballot polling election politics

Sometimes, amid the often synthetic fury in UK politics, there is a conspiracy of silence between the parties. On occasion this omertà can be spectacularly broken. Usually that involves an individual with a secret to do with sex or money, or both – a secret that everyone purports to have known about anyway.

It frequently emerges via the front page of a tabloid. The sheer number of these ‘everyone knew that’ revelations over the years is one of the main reasons we are all so prone to give any kind of credence to otherwise ridiculous conspiracy theories.

Much more serious, though, are the unspoken conspiracies between the parties in their failure to take on proper public debate about big controversial issues.

One obvious case in point, with serious ramifications for our industry, is the consequences of leaving the EU. Another related issue is immigration policy. A third is the future of the NHS. Rarely will politicians face each other in these debates and go to the heart of these crucial issues, for fear of courting rejection for the hard truths and painful spending choices with which the country should be faced.

Financing local government is another one of these issues – one that has been thrown into the spotlight with recent local elections. It’s incredibly complex and deeply boring, but it impacts literally every Grocer subscriber and everyone else in our industry.

As the broadcast and print media was fixated on who’d won where, no one paused to ask: why on earth do any of these people want to be councillors?

It’s an epic problem. There are more than 300 local councils in England alone.

Just think about their list of responsibilities. Education, social care and housing are at the heart of the concerns of every single person employed in our industry, and the pensioners who previously served in it. Planning, waste collection and disposal, and transport are vital to the operation of factories and stores everywhere.

In many towns and cities, these services are close to collapse or have done so already. Since 2010, central government funding to councils has been cut by a quarter in real terms. At the same time, demand – particularly in relation to schools and social care – has risen relentlessly.

Six councils, including giants like Birmingham, Nottingham and Northampton, have already gone bust. In a recent survey, 14 council chief financial officers said their authority would certainly file for section 114 (council bankruptcy) before the end of 2024. Over a dozen more said they were likely to do so.

The consequences are calamitous. State schools are underfunded with non-core subjects cut, and our industry’s core future workforce is falling further behind our international competitors. Social care – already banjaxed by Covid – has been reduced to frighteningly poor standards. Workers are increasingly likely to face a choice between abandoning elderly relatives to their fate or leaving work to care for them themselves, putting further pressure on availability of staff.

More prosaically, lack of budget leaves road surfaces unrepaired and flood defences inadequate, with obvious consequences for distribution, not to mention the impact on growers.

Yet no one speaks of the damage done to the businesses – most importantly grocery retail, food and drink manufacturers and hospitality – that pay for quality services they just aren’t receiving.

This isn’t the fault of Michael Gove, or Angela Rayner if she succeeds him. Indeed, I rather suspect they are those increasingly rare politicians who would relish the debate we ought to have. But silence prevails. It’s time the businesses represented among Grocer readers began to make a fuss, or shortly it may be too late.