Business and politics rarely mix well, but like it or not, retailers and property owners find themselves at the centre of the forthcoming election campaign.
This has been made clear by two things - the reaction to Stefano Pessina’s comments that a Labour Government would be a “catastrophe” and the debate about business rates.
The way Labour tried to “weaponise” Pessina into an us-versus-them political debate was extraordinary. The Boots boss was accused of being a tax avoider and trying to tell the UK how to vote.
Pessina is guilty of neither. The Boots boss is an Italian who has lived in Monaco for 30 years. He has no obligation to pay taxes in the UK. Nor was he preaching to the UK about how to vote; he simply expressed his concern at Labour’s rhetoric and some of their proposals. Given that he is in charge of a multinational company that employs 70,000 people in the UK and has consistently invested in the country over the last decade, this view is probably worth listening too.
Many other business leaders I speak to feel the same about Labour. At the same time though, many are also concerned about a Conservative government winning the next election and holding a referendum about Britain’s membership of the European Union. As well as issuing a warning about Labour, Pessina said it would be madness if Britain pulled out of the EU.
Business leaders on both sides of the debate are reluctant to speak out for fear of a backlash from politicians and dragging their companies through the mire. This is despite the fact that previous elections and the Scottish referendum last year demonstrated that businesses can have a pivotal impact on voting. In contrast, Labour has been more than willing to speak out against business leaders.
In recent general elections, the retail and property industries have focused on what impact the result would have on the health of the economy, rather than specific policies. But this time there are proposals on the table - most of which are likely to make it into the manifestos - that will clearly have consequences for companies. These include business rates, the mansion tax, an increase in the minimum wage and Britain’s role in the European Union.
The danger for business leaders is that if they don’t speak out now they will find themselves speaking out after the election about their anger at the new policy that is being foisted onto them.
The campaign to overhaul business rates has shown how businesses, whether acting alone in co-ordination, can encourage government into accepting that they must change the status quo.
The British Retail Consortium and the British Property Federation should be commended for how they brought their industries together to speak out about business rates. This meant the government was not just under pressure from trade bodies, but the big beasts of business, such as Justin King, the former chief executive of Sainsbury’s.
Getting chancellor George Osborne to announce a review of business rates in last year’s Autumn Statement was a major victory. However, the pressure from business leaders has eased since then and so has the Treasury’s urgency. There has been no update on the scope of the review, how it will work and when any changes would be implemented.
There is a danger that a revamp of business rates will be pushed into the long grass or politicised. Either scenario is dangerous for British businesses.
Labour has already started to politicise business rates by promoting it as a way of helping small businesses, saying Labour would cut business rates on properties with a rateable value of less than £50,000. This misses the main point - if the tax is dramatically overhauled then it will be fairer to small businesses anyway.
This is why business leaders need to make their thoughts on key issues public. If they don’t, then the key issues risk being distorted by party politics at the expense of the health of the long-term economy.
Make no mistake, retail and property is at the heart of the 2015 general election.
Graham Ruddick is retail correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph