In 2010 there was reasonable certainty about the outcome of the election. David Cameron was expected to become Prime Minister, but it was going to be close.
As a result, campaigning, particularly in marginal seats, dominated the first half of 2010. At the same time, all parties had written and locked their manifestos well in advance of the election being called. Many will remember that during this period, instead of developing policy the Conservatives had a dedicated team, led by Francis Maude and Oliver Letwin, preparing their policies and shadow teams to execute their plans once in Government.
The impact was that from the January of 2010 onwards, it became increasingly difficult for businesses to gain time with stakeholders. And that if they did, the opportunity to influence had often passed.
Today, the situation looks similar but amplified. The opportunity to genuinely influence manifestos, unless you are at the centre of a major political issue, has passed. Already, MPs, advisers and political staff are out campaigning in their own constituencies and in the many marginal seats around the country.
But this doesn’t mean this will be a quiet period for Portland or our clients. Instead, we have a clear view of the areas our clients should be focusing on to make the most of the next four months and prepare for the next government – whatever colour or shape it takes.
As a minimum, here are the five things those responsible for their organisation’s political relations should be thinking about:
- Understand the red lines
Much of the major parties’ policy has now been aired, and all three have started to signal the areas which may or may not be up for negotiation during any coalition talks. When thinking about your own pre and post-election plans it will be vital to have a clear understanding of likely policy and where each party’s red lines will fall. This means anticipating the parties’ deliverables and tradeables, and where they might give ground, and then the forces that will drive them once in power.
- There may be final opportunities to influence
Although the manifestos are now largely complete, there will be some final opportunities to engage where you are either at the heart of a critical debate or emerging issue, or have something truly compelling to offer. While most will be busy campaigning, we now know with some certainty who is likely to be in the room and advising around the edges during any coalition negotiations. If you have a strong case to make, and your issues touch on the parties’ priorities there are still opportunities to do business with this group.
- Whitehall matters
Don’t forget the importance of the civil service. Officials won’t commit to much, but should be prepared to listen to you so they are in the picture before their new ministers arrive. They are also now developing the briefing books which will be handed to new ministers on day one of the next government outlining their assessment of manifesto policy and how it can be implemented.
- This will be a campaign of ‘650 general elections’
Given the uncertainty about the result of this election, campaigning in seats across the country will be harder than ever. While your organisation may not be of national importance, this doesn’t mean you won’t get pulled into a local campaign by candidates looking for every opportunity to score points over their rivals. And while meeting your local PPCs will become increasingly difficult, don’t lose sight of how the political landscape may be changing in the communities where you do business.
- Plan beyond the 7th of May
As soon as the next Government is in place, a new phase in UK public affairs will begin. You have an opportunity now to consider and prepare not just how you will use the first 100 days of the next Government, but what you want to defend against or achieve during the next Parliament.
This is the sort of thinking and planning we deliver for our clients every day. Our senior team is unparalleled in UK public affairs, and our consultants across the team are experienced practitioners delivering quality execution, analysis and advice. We would be delighted to discuss this work and what it means for your organisation in more detail.