Parliament

End of Westminster duopoly may raise new hurdles for businesses

By: SA Mathieson
Published: Monday, October 20, 2014 - 17:13 GMT Jump to Comments

As the Conservative-Labour hold on power continues to weaken, suppliers need to get their views across to a wider range of politicians and the public too

Before 2010, UK had not had a coalition government since 1945, and then only in a time of national crisis. But as last week’s political events demonstrate, Britain is likely to have to get used to them.

The Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow was surprisingly upbeat for a party supported by just 8% of voters, according to a set of four opinion polls published on Sunday 12 October. The reason is simple: the LibDems are now a party of government, and have a decent shot at staying there after next May’s election. Leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg was able to laud his ministers, boast about party policies now translated into law and announce new waiting time limits for mental healthcare in the English NHS.

The party currently has 56 Westminster seats, and looks likely to lose many of them given its dive in popularity since the last election. But it may still end up holding the balance of power, due to the combined weakness of the Conservative and Labour parties. The four polls last weekend gave the former political duopoly parties an average combined vote of just 64%, split nearly equally between them. Both look likely to struggle to form a government alone, and while Labour currently looks a better bet, parties in government tend to do better at the general election than in opinion polls months in advance.

The missing votes have largely gone to the UK Independence Party, which averaged 19% in those opinion polls and celebrated its first MP from former Tory Douglas Carswell winning the previous week's Clacton by-election. UKIP also ran Labour a very close second in Heywood and Middleton, usually a safe Greater Manchester seat. UKIP’s charismatic leader Nigel Farrage told the BBC that he could hold the balance of power after the general election.

This is possible, but remains unlikely. Some right-wing Conservatives fancy linking with UKIP, but they don’t include the party’s leaders. And while the incoherence of UKIP’s opinions can be a benefit at by-elections, where candidates can tailor their message to win protest votes, they will be a weakness at a general election when parties’ policies get closely examined. Also, in places where UKIP looks likely to win, supporters of other parties look more likely than usual to vote tactically to keep them out, according to one poll.

However, this does mean that there are now four parties vying for control of Westminster, when there used to be just two. If you also include the Scottish and Welsh governments and local authorities, you can add three more across Great Britain (leaving aside Northern Ireland’s own set of parties): the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Green party. All seven parties have significant representation on individual local authorities, meaning they all take decisions affecting businesses supplying the public sector.

Businesses used to concentrate on lobbying the two big parties, with their annual conferences bearing resemblances to trade fairs. While a lot of this still goes on, it is an increasingly ineffective approach.

Suppliers to government along with other businesses should now make their case to all parties, which for all but the largest firms will usually be through industry-wide groups. It makes sense to ensure that groups to which you subscribe are speaking for you, both in terms of what they say and how well they say it.

Such an approach has further advantages. Putting forward views in public rather than in private can help to gain support from the general public as well as politicians. Also, stating views openly rather than aiming for a word in a ministerial ear looks a lot less like a backroom stitch-up. The end of the Westminster duopoly means that if your business has views, you need make them heard.

Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrat party conference

Sunday polling round-up (UK Polling Report)

UKIP gains first elected MP with Clacton win (BBC News)

UKIP’s rise means the end of Britain's all party, pro-business policy (The Information Daily, June 2014)

Farage will do 'deal with devil' for EU referendum (The Information Daily, June 2014)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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