Retail and supply lobbyists are off the starting blocks with their manifestos but will anybody be listening, asks Rachel Barnes

Food and drink industry lobbyists are already off the starting line as the general election campaigning kicks off. Manifestos from the British Retail Consortium, the Forum of Private Business and the Association of Convenience Stores landed on desks on Monday, calling for reductions of the red tape for small businesses, an end to above-inflation minimum wage rises and a call to push retail crime up the political agenda.
The Food and Drink Federation, the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, the NFU and the Farmers’ Union of Wales also added their demands.
In addition to business simplification, the FDF wants to see the industry have greater involvement in developing policy. It is also calling for a “joined-up government approach” on issues such as health, codes of practice and sustainability to guard against “conflicting messages”.
The ACS, which has set up an Election Centre to provide convenience retailers with updates and information, has set out a five-question agenda for its members to put to candidates. These include asking how they will deliver a level playing field, choice and diversity in local shopping; how they will tackle crime around stores; how they will promote a no ID, no sale policy; how they can cut red tape; and how they will help the sector maintain Post Offices.
In the FPB’s manifesto, it is simply asking for a fairer and more supportive business environment, and for the process of employing people to be made easier and cheaper. Chief executive Nick Goulding is particularly keen for the planned 1% increase to national insurance contributions to be
scrapped and future minimum wage rises to be linked to the Retail Price Index.
“Employers want to see that political parties understand the disproportionate burden on small firms,” explains Goulding. “We’re looking for evidence that the party leaders and their business teams are thinking about and acting to relieve the pressures on small businesses. It should not be forgotten there are four million SMEs.”
Although business issues did not rate a mention in Blair’s ‘A Big Choice’ election-launching speech, an economy-focused angle unsurprisingly dominated the Chancellor’s address. “We must do more to help risk-takers
and those with ambition to turn their ideas into reality,” said Gordon Brown. “I want our government to be on the side of businessmen and women. And we will work with businesses to remove all barriers that unnecessarily hold them back.”
However, despite all the main parties putting trade interests on their agendas - the Tories have pledged to cut 80% of DTI staff and introduce deregulation Bills, while the Lib Dems plan to abolish the DTI and cut red tape - the campaign will not be fought on business issues.
According to Wyn Grant, professor of politics at Warwick University, the economy will not feature highly in the 2005 election. The main parties will focus on the vote-winning issues, such as the NHS, education and crime, says Grant. “The time for businesses to make their cases is between elections and they may have to wait until it’s over before stepping up their campaigns. That’s not to say their manifestos aren’t useful, they may get attention. But businesses must be aware of rash promises being made in response to electoral issues, which they then can’t deliver on,” says Grant.
ACS director general David Rae also says business issues need more coverage and should include local as much as national issues. “There needs to be a real partnership between government and companies of all sizes.”
Both the NFU and the Farmers’ Union of Wales want farming at the heart of the debate. While the NFU is focusing on the industry’s role in reducing climate change impact and maintaining global competitiveness, the FUW is calling for the next government to allow free movement of animals on the Continent and pursue the EU to lift the ban on British beef exports. It is also asking for the government to limit supermarket power over the retail price of milk.
Unions, including Amicus, the shopworkers’ union Usdaw and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers union, are backing Labour. A spokesman for Amicus says Labour has made promises to deliver improved redundancy pay, maternity pay and minimum wage.
With less than four weeks until votes are counted, it is up to the industry to make its voice heard in the great debate. But the vote-winning issues could well overshadow those affecting trade competitiveness.