THE BLOG

Labour's Opportunity to Seize the Initiative on Consumer Struggles

13/02/2014 09:48 GMT | Updated 14/04/2014 10:59 BST

This week, Parliament is scrutinising a new raft of consumer rights legislation. This is just the latest manifestation of an emerging theme in British politics, and one that will affect many businesses in the run up to next year's general election: the politician as consumer-rights advocate.

Last month Labour Leader Ed Miliband announced plans for consumer bodies such as Which? and Citizens Advice to play a key role in advising a future Labour government on how well markets are working for consumers. Mr Miliband said that the organisations would work alongside the Competition and Markets Authority to conduct an annual 'competition audit' of all markets. The audit would highlight areas of concern, and the findings would be presented to Parliament for Ministers to respond to.

Last week he extended the argument to public services, promising to hand power over to patients and parents to intervene in failing schools or decide the future of local hospitals.

Ed Miliband has been clear throughout that his plans are intended to put consumers back at the heart of the regulatory process, and would drive reform. But for the business community, it is worth taking a moment to consider where the policy has come from, and where Ed Miliband is hoping it will take him.

With the recession still hanging heavy over most of the electorate there is great political capital to be made from championing the hard pressed consumer. Ed Miliband discovered this to his advantage in his 2013 Autumn Party Conference speech when he announced plans for an energy price freeze under a Labour government. Whilst not necessarily a game changer in the polls, the announcement certainly proved to be a game changer for the political narrative ahead of the 2015 General Election.

This is because his speech tapped into a remarkably simple yet versatile concept - that it doesn't matter what the growth figures say, if voters do not feel the government and the economy are delivering for them individually, they will be less disposed to support policy. He made it clear Labour is the party that will 'take on' vested interests, empowering consumers to tackle the 'crisis' through greater competition, and has already extended the concept to attack competition levels in the banking and housing markets. The announcement is further evidence that he sees plenty of mileage left in the strategy, and with over a year to go before the election there are plenty of directions he could move in.

So should the business community be worried? In short, yes. If the consumer agenda is going to be central to Labour's cost of living campaign there are a wealth of markets which could be drawn into the firing line. Transport, insurance, payday lending, and food prices have already been earmarked as possible areas for action. The alcohol industry and pub companies could offer rich pickings, as could telecommunications, grocery and banking. Not only does the 'cost of living' narrative have traction with voters, but it is also a welcome opportunity for Labour to be able to talk about the economy - a struggle in recent years owing to the party's association with the financial crisis in the minds of voters.

And with Labour currently maintaining a comfortable lead in the polls; UKIP threatening to undermine Conservative support; and the Lib Dems likely to lose a substantial proportion of their support base to the Left, a Labour government is not something to rule out at the moment.

With over a year remaining before voters go to the ballot boxes there is still time for companies to avoid any nasty surprises emanating from Westminster, and to help shape the political landscape. But it is clear that political engagement and due diligence are no longer optional for Britain's businesses.