A snap general election has a number of knock-on effects for the Public Affairs industry. Secretary of State meetings have to be canned, key policy working groups abandoned, and wider engagement programmes put on hold. Purdah doesn’t just mean civil servants have to stop working on meaningful policy, to some extent our industry suffers from a freeze as well. But for this OCD Public Affairs consultant, in particular, the fact that we’re now out of sync with a beautifully symmetrical ’10 / ’15 / ’20 / ’25 / ’30 etc. schedule of elections has me in even more of a spin.
In previous election campaigns there has, however, been an array of activity for businesses to carry out: hustings with candidates, proactive launches of individual manifestos and individual targeting of candidates in constituency or business-relevant sites. All useful activities aimed at sparking debate on subjects that matter most to individual businesses, providing an opportunity to demonstrate thought-leadership, and being one step ahead in terms of building stakeholder relationships into the next Parliament.
But that was the protocol when election campaigns actually sparked debate and discussions on particular issues. In this election, there is little debate on issues (plural). There is one issue, Brexit, and it dominates the political landscape in a way we have never witnessed. When you add this to the near-certain result of a significant Conservative majority and the current closed-nature of the powers that be in Number 10, our clients need to move away from the traditional forms of engaging politicians around General Election time.
It may well be the case for many clients that a period of intense planning is more appropriate at this stage. With a Government heading towards a significant majority businesses will need to engage in a way that makes sure their issues are recognised and taken into account – no easy task. The Government will feel emboldened to follow its own path set out in its manifesto and, of course, to focus much of its attention on Brexit negotiations.
Two issues stand out:
1. CSR: given May’s agenda, companies able to demonstrate they have “broad shoulders” and are willing to step up to play an active role in society will have an easier ride pushing through the barriers to Government engagement.
2. Commitment to exports: come 23:00 on the 29th March, 2019 (that hour less is, for Brussels, a pedantic and comical expression of their perceived power) Brexit will likely have been finalized and companies with a commitment to growing their export portfolio will be crucial to the country making a success of the new arrangement or not. Communicating our clients’ strengths in this area now will stand them in good stead.
How to do this?
1. Developing a range of advocates in the business: tied into May’s community agenda, the more a business can show that staff on the shop floor or factory buy into the company’s initiatives, the likelier the chances of success (think more site visits and demonstrations)
2. The Opposition is important: no, not HM Opposition (for the moment), but backbench MPs will be the only opposition to the Government for a while. Twiddling their thumbs on the green benches will leave them ready to pick up a cause to champion, especially with new MPs coming to Parliament looking to make a name for themselves
3. Sir Humphrey: as power is centralised, officials and advisers become ever more important
We’re currently planning along these lines with a number of clients in order to hit the ground running come 9th June, 2017. What with Brexit and a new Government, our industry has many opportunities to provide real added-value to our clients in the months and years ahead. Looking forward to it!