General election 2024: Businesses have a long wish-list from parties

The approach of business to general elections is not what it was.

Not that long ago, it was common for big corporates to make donations to political parties, including big FTSE 100 names such as SmithKline Beecham, United Biscuits, General Accident and Whitbread.

Most of these donations would go to the Conservatives but there were some companies, such as Marks & Spencer and Pearson, which also made donations to other parties.

Some, such as Hanson - whose founder Lord Hanson was a loyal supporter of Margaret Thatcher - continued to do so even after the 1992 Cadbury Report recommended companies stop making contributions to political parties.

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Even after the political contributions dried up, FTSE 100 chief executives were not shy about endorsing or criticising politicians at election time.

In 1997, a number of well-known business people including Robert Ayling of British Airways, Bob Bauman of the old British Aerospace (now BAE Systems) and George Simpson of GEC endorsed Tony Blair's Labour ahead of that year's election, while John Major's Conservatives also had plenty of backers.

Business people were also happy to speak out about particular policies. Ahead of the 1997 election, BT's chairman, Sir Iain Vallance, lashed out at Labour's proposals for a windfall tax on the privatised utilities while Brian Stewart, chief executive of the pubs and brewing giant Scottish & Newcastle, criticised Labour's plans to create a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers.

None of that happens any more. Most CEOs, while having their own political opinions like the rest of us, prefer to keep them to themselves. The more astute, realising that it makes sense to speak to politicians, are careful to ensure they are seen to be behaving even-handedly and not expressing a preference for one side or the other.

Business wish-lists

That does not mean businesses do not have their own wish-lists of policies.

This is particularly true of small businesses. Their wish-list has not changed in the last couple of decades and is topped by wanting a change in the law to enforce prompt payments from larger businesses to their suppliers and the reform of business rates, which is also a bugbear for larger companies in sectors such as retail and hospitality.

Higher up the corporate food chain, what big businesses crave most is clarity and consistency in policy.

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As Dame Amanda Blanc, chief executive of insurance, savings and pensions giant Aviva, told Sky News today: "Obviously we're apolitical. What we want is for the environment to be one where we can invest, with certainty. You know, we want consistency and stability and so that whoever is the winner of the election, we want the election to be decisive, and we really want there to be certainty for us to be able to invest in things like UK infrastructure."

Dame Amanda, who has served on both the prime minister's business council and on the business taskforce put together by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, added: "We've invested £9.5bn in UK infrastructure in the last three years.

"Our commitment is £25bn over the next 10 years. In order to do that, you have to have a more certain environment. And so that's what we look forward to."

That desire for stability and consistency was why the brief tenure of Liz Truss in 10 Downing Street was so damaging and why, off the record, a lot of business executives will admit to being grateful to Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt for restoring order to public finances after the firestorm created by Kwasi Kwarteng's mini-budget in September 2022.

They feel it is the first time, since David Cameron was in office, that a PM had the corporate world's back. Theresa May alienated a lot of globe-trotting CEOs with her infamous 2016 speech in which she said "if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere". She was replaced by Boris Johnson who, as foreign secretary in 2018, infamously said "f*** business." And then came Ms Truss.

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If business leaders are grateful to Messrs Sunak and Hunt, there is also warmth towards Sir Keir Starmer and Ms Reeves for their constructive approach.

Yes, there is some unease about deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner's proposals to ban zero-hours contracts, end fire and rehire and to give workers full rights and protections from day one of their employment.

But there is a sense that after the leadership of Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, who went into the 2019 election campaign threatening to nationalise much of the energy industry, the water industry and BT's broadband network, this is the most pro-business Labour leadership since the days of the much-missed Tony Blair.

While big businesses chiefly seek stability and consistency of policy, that is not to say they do not have specific wish-lists of their own.

The big leisure, hospitality and luxury goods companies would like the restoration of VAT-free shopping for international visitors, the loss of which, they argue, has driven business away from the UK to destinations like Paris and Milan.

Most businesses with property interests - which is nearly all of them - would like to see a more coherent planning regime. Housebuilders would like a relaxation of rules requiring a proportion of housing developments are devoted to affordable homes.

Shoplifting scourge

Retailers would like the police to be required to make tackling the scourge of shoplifting a greater priority.

Manufacturers, in particular, would like to see an easing to some trade frictions that have built up since Brexit.

And carmakers - currently under threat of being fined if a certain proportion of their sales are not electric vehicles - would like to see a restoration of government incentives to buy EVs and for the roll-out of EV charging points.

Businesses, it is often pointed out, do not have votes.

But they do create the jobs and wealth on which this country relies. Those hitting the campaign trail over the next six weeks will need no reminding of that.