What will be different about lobbying in a hung parliament?
What will be different about lobbying in a hung parliament? Where can we look to find out?
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” are the opening words of the novel The Go-Between.
If that is true, 1974 is on the other side of the world. Our most useful experience is much closer to home, in Scotland. Since the first Holyrood elections in 1999, our Scottish Retail Consortium has operated with two Labour/Liberal Democrat coalitions and now a minority SNP government. We have learnt a lot.
Firstly we should recognise the limits to comparing the UK and Scotland. The electoral and political systems are fundamentally different. Scotland is a smaller country with closer relationships between fewer politicians and a more limited range of issues. And Scottish elections now come with a presumption that the system is likely to produce results that require parties to work together. But there are lessons for Westminster.
As we have seen in recent days, no overall majority means a period of uncertainty. In Scotland it has taken up to 10 days to thrash out the details of a coalition.
What has happened behind various closed Whitehall doors over the past week we don’t know, but it can be difficult to deal constructively with people when the mutual mudslinging has only just ended.
But wrangling-time now can make life easier later. The negotiating dirty-work - who gets what legislative time, budget, department - holds things up immediately post-election, but by the time the bills programme is announced, there is less conflict because the fights have already been had.
Lobbying a formal coalition is not unlike single-party government. Unsurprisingly, relationships with ministers, civil servants and special advisers are crucial but there are power bases. A coalition is not an equal match. It can be more effective to concentrate your efforts on the senior partners most of the time.
But we have never tried to play individuals or parties within the coalition off against each other. That is a sure-fire way to wrecking relationships all round.
Minority government is different again. Harmful legislation can be stopped by securing support from opposition politicians. The risk is spreading your efforts too thinly. You need to identify, and build your credibility with a more limited number of key policy influencers.
Never make assumptions about how things will develop. That is another top tip. Spend time with all parties. Don’t burn bridges. That definitely paid dividends for us when Scotland’s minority SNP government came in.
Clearly any campaign group that based its plans over the last year on a convincing Conservative win is having to rethink now.
Happily we have been systematically building our engagement with MPs and candidates from all three main parties for a long time. Making sure they understand the importance of retail and looking to influence policy at its formative stages. There’s a lot more to do but I’m confident we are well placed.
Stephen Robertson is Director-General of the British Retail Consortium