Election 2024: Food, retail and farming sectors react to party manifestos

25 June 2024, 06:00 AM
  • With the general election around the corner, Speciality Food discovers what key industry insiders make of the parties’ promises so far
Election 2024: Food, retail and farming sectors react to party manifestos

The countdown to the general election on 4 July is well and truly on, and with the parties’ manifestos launched, fine food businesses will be making their decisions about who they think should form the next government.

Speciality Food hears from leading voices in the retail, food and farming industries to take the pulse of the sector ahead of the election.

Make independent shops a ‘top priority’

All political parties must make reviving the independent retail sector a “top priority”, according to Bira, the British Independent Retailers Association. “The current climate poses grave challenges that threaten these businesses’ very existence and the vibrancy of our high streets,” warned Bira’s CEO Andrew Goodacre. 

He called the upcoming election a “pivotal crossroads” and urged political parties to “commit to a new era of policy putting indie retailers first”.

“Their survival underpins our high streets’ identities as community hubs,” he continued.

Bira’s manifesto includes a series of demands to revitalise town centres, including reducing or eliminating business rates, accelerating investment in high streets nationwide, making funding available to help smaller retailers invest in environmental sustainability and technology, introducing flexible commercial energy contracts and combatting retail crime.

Creating diverse high streets that foster sustainability, inclusivity and economic growth will not be possible without ‘major reforms’ to ease the burden on independents, Bira said.

Business rates reform, retail crime and taxes

The Labour party’s manifesto includes “many of the right policies to help retail invest for the future, upskill its workforce and play its part in growing the UK economy,” Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said.

“From replacing the broken business rates system, to reforming the rigid Apprenticeship Levy, Labour are promising to make changes that will have a meaningful impact to retailers and their customers,” she continued. 

Labour’s manifesto said it would replace the business rates system, which “disincentives investment, creates uncertainty and places an undue burden” on high streets, with a new “fairer” system that would “level the playing field” between high street and online retailers.

However, Sam Robinson, senior researcher at The Social Market Foundation, a cross-party think tank, said that while the proposal was “eye-catching” and a good idea “it is odd, and slightly disconcerting, that we still don’t even have an outline of what Labour would replace it with.” 

While Labour’s manifesto “recognises the crucial importance of the UK’s small firms and the self-employed,” said Tina McKenzie, policy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), she added that small businesses “will want to hear more reassurance from the party on the huge taxes small firms already pay at every stage of running their businesses”.

In response to the Conservative party manifesto, Tina welcomed plans to scrap self-employed NICs within the next five years, but added that the FSB would like to see “a similar pro-enterprise tax offer” to support small limited companies. It was also “encouraging” to see the Conservatives keeping further increases to the VAT threshold under review, she said.

“Whoever wins the next election, there is a lot to do to make sure the UK has the strong small business economy we all need,” Tina said.

Retail crime has also been in the spotlight, with shoplifting rates recently rising to the highest figure on record. The BRC welcomed Labour’s pledge to create a new specific offence for assaulting a retail worker to protect workers from both threats and violence. “Furthermore, the manifesto pledges to get tough on shoplifting, which cost retailers £1.8 billion in 2023/24,” Helen said.

A ‘thriving homegrown food sector’ is essential

The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties all recognised the importance of food security to the UK’s national security in their manifestos. The NFU welcomed this, alongside Liberal Democrat and Conservative commitments to increase a protected UK agriculture budget by £1 billion, Labour’s commitment to promote the highest standards on food imports and the Conservative promise to introduce a legally binding target to enhance food security.

However, NFU president Tom Bradshaw said the lack of any mention of an agriculture budget in the Labour manifesto was “deeply disappointing”.

“The single most vital element is the agricultural budget. This isn’t just ‘money for farmers’, it’s the funding which helps the sector transition away from the old EU system, allows farm businesses to invest for the future and makes governments’ aims around sustainable food production, food security, the environment and net zero possible,” Tom said. 

“It’s funding to help underpin the UK’s largest manufacturing sector – food and drink – which contributes more than £128 billion to the national economy and provides jobs for four million people,” he added.

The NFU also welcomed all three parties’ commitments to support British food producers by increasing public sector sourcing from British farms, with the Conservatives and Labour promising to source at least 50% of public sector food locally or to higher environmental standards.

“We are continuing to engage with candidates across all parties to highlight the importance of a thriving homegrown food sector, and the need for resilient and profitable farming and growing businesses to underpin it,” Tom said.

Spotlight on international trade

The recent introduction of post-Brexit border checks has caused headaches for fine food businesses who import food from the European Union, while British exporters to the bloc have faced increased costs and confusion over labelling.

While the Conservative manifesto claims UK exports are growing, David Jinks, head of consumer research, at parcel delivery firm Parcelhero, said that “good exporters have had a torrid time dealing with the impact of Brexit, the true extent of which is still only becoming apparent as further border control measures are implemented”.

The Conservative manifesto says that the UK has secured trade deals with 73 countries plus the EU, as well as removing £1 million of trade barriers every hour. “That may be true,” says Parcelhero’s David, “but new trade barriers have been imposed, impacting exports to the EU in many ways. And the manifesto is notably silent on the issue of the vital US trade agreement we were promised as a Brexit bonus,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat’s manifesto offered “a ray of light” to the food and drink industry “with a commitment to negotiate a comprehensive veterinary and plant health agreement,” explained Mark Lynch, partner at corporate finance house Oghma Partners.

While a commitment to rejoin the current EU veterinary and phytosanitary regime would be preferred, Mark said, he praised the Lib Dems for being the only party that “recognises the damage that this area of Brexit has caused to UK food exports. Let’s hope a consensus can be built on this topic, as a baby-step to help the food and beverage industry re-build its exports to our largest trading partner,” he continued.

The Labour party also addressed the struggles smaller food exporters has faced since Brexit. “Tucked away towards the back of the Labour Party manifesto there is a commitment to ‘seek to negotiate a veterinary agreement to prevent unnecessary border checks and help tackle the cost of food’ – this is great news for the food industry and consumers, particularly for the smaller food exporters who have been particularly hard hit by Brexit-related issues,” Mark said.

FSB figures show that one in five small firms are worried about the costs of exports and imports over the next five years, with fears the “supply chain could crumble” unless the next government prioritises international trade.

“Strengthening trade links with major markets like the EU and USA is key to the UK’s future as a global trading force,” said the FSB’s Tina. “This would also incentivise small firms to start and continue trading.” Creating an online portal that collects all information small firms need to provide just once is part of the FSB’s manifesto for small businesses.

Children’s health in focus

Ongoing HFSS regulations are shifting the food and drink landscape in the UK, and Labour’s manifesto pledged to go further, with a new children’s health and weight strategy that includes measures such as banning sales of high-caffeine, high-sugar energy drinks, and a commitment to bringing in the 9pm watershed and online advertising restrictions for unhealthy food and drink. 

“We applaud Labour for putting children’s health at the core of their future strategy,” said Children’s Food Campaign manager Barbara Crowther. “All evidence points to heavily caffeinated energy drinks being harmful to children’s physical and mental health.

“It’s perverse that sugary high caffeine energy drinks can be sold directly to children, despite being required to carry warnings that they’re ‘not suitable for children’,” she continued. “Closing that loophole makes total common sense. Energy drinks companies simply shouldn’t be allowed to profit at the expense of child health.” 

Barbara urged all political parties to adopt a comprehensive child health strategy, “using all possible levers of change including healthy school food for all, more honest labelling, incentives for a healthier food industry, action on early years infant feeding and expansion of nutritional safety nets such as Healthy Start”.

The cost-of-living crisis

Despite official figures showing food price inflation fell in May, business and consumers continue to face higher prices and bills.

Small businesses are still concerned about economic growth, according to the FSB. “With the election just weeks away, no political party has yet set out a compelling vision for how it would achieve a steady increase of two to three percent growth per year,” said Martin McTague, national chair of the FSB. “To ensure that GDP climbs – and stays – at healthy levels, the next government must prioritise this.”

The FSB’s latest Small Business Index showed that while small firms’ confidence score in the first quarter climbed to positive territory for the first time in two years, the domestic economy was still seen as the top barrier to growth. 

“Small firms are the key to economic recovery – after all, they’re the ones who drive innovation and create jobs. Supporting them is a sure-fire way to strengthen our economy and ensure lasting growth,” Martin continued. And he was hopeful about the country’s future following the election. “The next government has its work cut out for it, but with the right focus, it will be able to make a substantial impact on the economy.”

more like this
close stay up-to-date with our free newsletter | expert intel | tailored industry news | new-to-know trend analysis | sign up | speciality food daily briefing