Laura Chisholm, Hanover: The power of opposition

City firms should embrace a cross-party strategy as they seek to limit regulation.

It is easy for business to forget the significance of the opposition party immediately after a change in Government. For financial services companies, under pressure as the cuts for which many hold them responsible start to bite, the temptation is to not speak unless spoken to.

So should public affairs teams from City firms divert their resources into talking to hostile MPs who do not have their hands on the actual levers of power? Is there any point in the City engaging with those with entrenched views while there is so much to get to grips with in the new world of domestic and international regulation?

The reasons to engage with the opposition at this stage in the electoral cycle go beyond manners and sympathy. Hanover's advice to clients is that a public affairs strategy without a cross-party dimension is incomplete and short-sighted.

The most obvious reason for this is that Labour will one day be in government again. Although it's unlikely that Ed Miliband will be David Cameron's successor (it's usually the MPs who don't have it who complain about X Factor politics), today's Labour MPs will one day be behind the desks in Whitehall.

Eighteen months before this year's general election, there was a rush of people wanting to get to know the Conservative Party. MPs who reciprocated often only did so on the most formal level. Conservative MPs now in government remember those businesses that bothered to engage with them after 1997. They also remember those who did not. It is worth identifying the most tribal Labour MPs - they are the individuals most likely to reject late advances from business.

A failure to understand the importance of opposition is a failure to understand the way policy is formed. Policy positions often have a long gestation period and are born out of the wider political climate; no policy pronouncement is made without thought given to the impact on the other side.

An effective opposition party can put political pressure on a government even years from polling day. This can result in a shift of emphasis. So, for example, the fact that Ed Miliband will be calling for a permanent bonus tax will shape the debate come payouts next February and March. At the least, Labour MPs will stoke some unhelpful press coverage. The influence of the opposition can also be more direct; Labour's 2007 Budget took up Conservative policies on non-doms, air travel duty and inheritance tax.

So, if the case is accepted that the opposition matters for business looking to influence policy, what are the rules of engagement for financial services? It is important to manage how the opposition uses information; current Communities and Local Government Ministers will not engage with trade bodies whose criticisms of Conservative policy in opposition provided the Labour Party with ammunition.

The City is wary of Ed Miliband - this is unsurprising given his pronouncements on tax during the campaign and his union backers. However, positions adopted during a campaign are often quietly dropped. Even if it appears that there are irreconcilable differences between a business' perspective and a policy position, business should always engage.

It would be a shame if the City castigated MPs for their lack of understanding while not bothering to try to explain why and how they operate. They can instead offer non-partisan expertise to under-resourced shadow cabinet offices, contribute to the debate and demonstrate they are interested in policy as it impacts the UK rather than their bottom line.

Laura Chisholm is senior account director at Hanover

VIEWS IN BRIEF

- Which public sector budget cut is likely to be the toughest for the Government to push through?

Within the party, defence. Welfare cuts will be the hardest to communicate externally.

- Who would make the better lobbyist - David or Ed Miliband?

Ed. He has displayed the type of single-minded focus our clients appreciate.

- Which public sector organisation has made the best case for ringfencing its budget or minimising any cuts?

Any of the 94 quangos on the 'to be reviewed section' in the leaked memo on cuts. Although maybe they were the ones that stayed quiet rather than making a case.

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