AS the looming UK general election is still in the balance, which are the issues of most importance to the Secret FD and which is the least bad party to vote for?
Many would argue the economy has recovered well during the past five years of this coalition government, and employment has improved by nearly two million. However, we cannot vote for a coalition although the prime minister seems to be preparing for one. There is only a small chance of him winning 326 seats and he has ruled out a third term as PM despite not yet having won a second. And the deputy PM is on course for a ‘Portillo’ moment, and may lose his seat unless a large number of students in his Sheffield Hallam constituency register and vote for him.
FDs will be concerned about the conflicting manifesto positions of the leading parties, on issues regarding the economy, taxation and EU membership. Many will be focused on election issues specific to their own sectors such as health, education, transport, housing, local government and defence. And given the prominence of last year’s Scottish referendum, regional politics are likely to affect the election significantly, and this will lead to an unprecedented level of uncertainty.
Some businesses are currently frustrated by the paralysis during Purdah. Coincidentally, I recently met a certain government minister, and was struck by his disengagement – I was certain never to see him in that job again after May.
This particular election does create a number of specific uncertainties for business which will dominate the next Parliament. The Tory pledges for huge investment in the road, rail and defence sectors provide long-term business opportunities, as do their intentions to strengthen support for local enterprise. We look forward to the Help to Grow scheme for SMEs and any slashing of red tape. However, the Lib Dems oppose any expansion of Heathrow but, instead, propose to increase the coverage of high-speed broadband. Labour’s pledge to undertake a strategic defence review and to maintain only a minimum deterrent will stifle investment in this sector, and their position on energy bills could affect that industry.
Mercifully, there is some agreement on the need for additional investment in housing and the NHS, but not on how to find that funding. Labour’s threat to cut university fees has not been matched by promises of any replacement funding. Discussions about zero-hours contracts may be important to some businesses but will affect less than 2% of UK jobs. Some parties have suggested polices which are, frankly, scary. All in all, a package of confusion and uncertainty.
I firmly believe the power and validity of that famous US quote: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Unsurprisingly, the UK economy will be at the heart of this election. How and when will the deficit be tamed? What are the prospects for full employment, interest rates and inflation? What will be done to assist exports? Who will be the victims of punitive taxes? Letters to the press by senior executives and prominent institutions demanding support for a Tory vote, encouraging investment and job creation, and blasting Labour’s war on zero-hours contracts are recent examples of business interventions in the election.
However, I expect most FDs will vote according to their own views, taking into account the NHS problems, law and order, regional issues, foreign policy, welfare, taxation and the question of whom they trust the most (or the least). Some will face a choice between voting for good local MPs or parties with the preferred national agendas. Some will vote on the basis of the agenda most relevant to their own businesses. Some will be encouraging other people to take a part and vote, but a small number might not vote at all.
I was not swayed by the debate of the seven leaders, nor do I believe the misery index, but I am proud to be voting in that highly prized system of the secret ballot.
Last month the SFD spent a long weekend at Crosby Beach near Liverpool admiring Antony Gormley’s 100 iron men sculptures and searching for inspiration for a difficult business plan awash with uncertainties.