Thoughts From Party Conference Season

It feels like a bit of a fool’s errand trying to pick out from party conference season the hard policy news related to convenience stores.  Let’s not kid ourselves, these events aren’t about setting a detailed policy agenda, they are about big messages played to the base of activists and to the media, and ambitious politicians raising their profile with both of those audiences. This year’s agenda – in truth not unlike the past few years – has been so dominated by Britain’s exit from the European Union that the headlines aren’t really being made by retail issues. But … as I’ve noted in these blogs before, our sector is profoundly impacted by the front page debates, and there have been some developments in these relevant areas over the conference season.

Firstly, there’s the wider debate on the role of business, with John McDonnell putting forward ideas for employee (and/or public) ownership of large companies, and the Conservatives trying to re-establish themselves as the friend of business after some implicit and explicit criticism of businesses, particularly by Brexit supporters who associated business with the oft-referenced “Project Fear”.  Take all of this with a pinch of salt, for now, and it’s interesting to me that the rhetoric we’ve heard from all parties this Autumn has been spookily reminiscent of Ed Miliband’s “producers and predators” 2014 Labour conference speech.

There was one platform speech that tackled retail issues very explicitly, and that was from Labour’s business lead Rebecca Long-Bailey. Her plan for high streets referenced a number of policy areas where we take a great interest: business rates, preventing Post Office closures, digital connectivity and ATMs.  It was the announcement of a policy to end charging for using ATMs that stood out most, and if this means significantly increasing the interchange fees paid by banks so convenience stores and others operators can provide these in every location, well that would be welcome. I’m not sure the mechanisms to achieve this policy have been thought through quite that carefully, and we’re working with the Labour front bench on this and all the elements of that plan.

Of course business rates are part of that plan, and the debate over how to raise income fairly when the retail sector and high street has changed so fundamentally was feature in Liverpool and in Birmingham. I’m concerned that this has been firmly placed in the “too difficult” file by government ministers, when actually there are ways to modernise the system within the current framework: a separate rating scheme for internet retailers (comparable to existing schemes for petrol forecourts, ATMs and pubs), and changing rating to promote and reward investment rather than penalising it. We detailed how the Treasury could deliver this in our Budget submission here.

Probably the meatiest policy announcement during the Conservative party conference was on the post-Brexit Immigration system. There will be many more twists and turns on this, but the outline of the proposal is to treat EU citizens no differently to those of other countries, and to limit immigration to skilled workers.  That clearly presents challenges for the labour market from which convenience stores recruit their teams. This probably isn’t felt most keenly by stores themselves (though in some areas retailers will see a direct impact on their workforce) but it will have indirect impacts: other employers who lose a large proportion of their current and potential workforce will have to recruit from a smaller local market, so convenience store recruitment will become harder.  What’s more, if wholesalers, distributors and food producers lose staff, that will push up their costs and / or create operational challenges.

And of course that takes us to Brexit. This party conference season was essentially jockeying for position ahead of the parliamentary debates and votes later in the Autumn on the deal we strike (or not) with the EU. Did party conference season give us a glimpse of a post-Brexit policy agenda?  Maybe not directly, but we emerge with a better idea of how the debate on some very important policy issues is shaping up.

This entry was posted by Chloe on Wed, 03/10/2018 - 14:05