With just a few weeks left until Britain votes, plenty of column inches have already been dedicated to the interests of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and what they want to hear from the main party leaders. Less attention has so far been paid to what each party will actually offer Britain's enterprises.
Instead, we've observed plenty of contrasting viewpoints from the main parties as to what each one plans to offer SMEs in this year's election. With current polls indicating a difference of just one per cent between Labour and the Conservatives, we can't accurately predict which party will form a Government this May, so should business owners take what they hear from the main parties at face value? Or will the rise of 'fringe' parties have an impact this May?
The Conservatives have targeted excessive regulation and other 'red tape' as a barrier to growth, pledging to save over £10bn by curbing regulations they see as unnecessary. With a draft bill already prepared, it claims that its initial targets would be retail, infrastructure and manufacturing. It plans to combine this policy with an increase in rate relief for SMEs in the retail sector, in order to boost its credentials among business owners ahead of the election.
It has also emphasised its support for Britain's regions. As part of the current Government, the Conservatives launched the Regional Growth Fund for SMEs and have been quick to point to their support for investment outside London.
However, the Conservatives may have to alter their plans depending on UKIP's role in the upcoming election. With talk of a potential deal between the two parties, the Conservatives may have to incorporate some of UKIP's policies towards SMEs such as restrictions on employing foreign workers, which may harm the British workforce's ability to remain competitive according to some observers. Whether such a coalition will occur remains to be seen, but business owners should be aware that the Conservatives may have to tailor their policies if it does take place.
Labour has centred its SME policy on the creation of a US-style 'Small Business Administration' designed to restructure the existing network of financial regulations that small businesses have to deal with. This has attracted the support of the Federation of Small Businesses, as Labour has also announced its plans to reduce the burden of excessive rates on business owners, cutting rates and freezing them for £1.5m business properties.
As with the Conservatives however, Labour may also have to adjust its plans for SMEs. Although Labour leader Ed Miliband has formally ruled it out, a coalition deal with the SNP could still be a potential outcome should Labour fail to win an outright majority. Labour may then have to accommodate the SNP's 'Small Business Bonus' scheme, aimed at Scottish SMEs. Such an outcome is unlikely, but business owners should consider the possibilities.
Much like the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats are keen to point to their achievements in Government over the past five years, so much of their approach to SMEs is focused on extending the policies already put in place by the current Government, such as the Regional Growth fund. They've also spoken of their support for diversification and developing Britain's regions, along with a complete restructure of the rate system for SMEs.
With current polling placing the Liberal Democrats far behind Labour and the Conservatives, they're much more likely to play the 'kingmaker' role. It's not out of the question to expect another Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, in which SMEs could expect to see more of the same from the next Government. With many business leaders concerned over the prospect of change, this outcome may be well received by SMEs.
Overall, business owners can't know what to expect from this year's election. The political landscape has been transformed by the arrival of 'fringe' parties such as UKIP to the extent that Britain is moving away from its traditional two-party contest. These parties are not likely to form a Government themselves, but could make the crucial difference should either Labour or the Conservatives fail to win an outright majority.
Britain's business owners should make awareness of the issues a priority. The rapid rise of UKIP and the Green Party has had a remarkable impact within a short space of time, but these parties haven't yet had the same level of scrutiny as Labour or the Conservatives. If Cameron and Miliband won't make the impact of 'fringe' parties clear, it falls to business owners to make sure that any eventuality is prepared for.