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Business leaders networking at the Peach 20/20 Conference  

02 May 2024

Get real: Labour’s coming and we all need a plan

By Peter Martin
There aren’t many card-carrying members of the Labour Party in the upper echelons of the hospitality sector. But the more senior leaders I speak to, the more I sense that there may actually be a small sigh of relief the day Sir Keir Starmer walks through the door of 10 Downing Street.

I’m not saying that the Labour leader will be their first choice, or that many of the market’s top brass will actually vote for his party. But like much of the country with an eye on the opinion polls, there’s the knowledge that a Labour victory on election day is heavily odds on.

And if that’s the case, the overwhelming sentiment I’m picking up is “let’s get on with it”, and put this current administration out of its misery swiftly. It’s a bit of a cliche, but business really does like certainty - and that would be a start.

Of course, that’s when the hard work starts. Labour has begun to flesh out its promise to reform business rates, which is a plus. But real concerns remain about its proposed reforms of workers’ rights, in particular around zero-hours contracts. Conversations are already underway.

As well as liking certainty, consistency is also high on the business community’s wish list. 

While hospitality-specific issues - like the two above, VAT and of course immigration policy - will make the headlines, the big concerns I hear from bosses are around investment, especially on infrastructure, and long-term economic planning. 

The inconsistencies and course-changing on strategic issues (and both major parties have been guilty of this) is a major frustration - and is holding back investment by companies. This is particularly true on the environment and energy - and more than one sector leader has expressed regret at Labour abandoning its energy and climate change investment pledges.

On a practical level, we’ve heard not just from the operators of motorway services but pub chains too bemoaning the number of EV charging points left unused because they can’t get connected to the grid. More importantly there are a host of operators with plans to switch to climate-friendly all-electric kitchens being thwarted by the lack of an ungraded national energy infrastructure - and by the significant costs to get connected or have a sub-station built.

As another senior figure told me, the government has funds it could divert to help local connectivity if it wanted to.

This is real investment in the future coming from hospitality that’s being constrained by government inaction and reluctance to invest itself - and only government can tackle this particular problem. It needs vision and a long-term commitment. 

It’s not that business people are giving up on capitalism and turning statist all of a sudden, but taking back utilities under some sort of public ownership is becoming more attractive. Yes, they want the trains running too - not to mention the water industry getting its act together.

What’s really needed, many in business now argue, is for government to set the strategy (with business consultation), but with those major long-term infrastructure projects and the delivery bodies set free from both the vagaries of the market and political interference. 

Easy to say of course, but again both certainty and consistency are what’s required.

And perhaps those are the big national issues that hospitality, alongside the wider business community, really needs to push an incoming Labour administration hard on? Don’t forget the specifics that would help the sector, but there are bigger national issues that the market needs to focus on too. It’s all about unlocking real business investment and the benefits that will bring.

There are those of course that the mere thought of a Labour government will send shivers down the spine. But in the end this is all about doing business - and sustainable business.

Britain back commuting

Some of you may remember that I created a rough-and-ready metric to gauge how quickly people were returning to the office post-Covid. It involved nothing more sophisticated than counting the cars in various railway station car parks - most notably Northampton and Milton Keynes.

Early signs were not good as most remained deserted. But this week I can report that before catching a London train from Milton Keynes Central, I actually had to drive up to the 10th and top floor of the multi-storey to find a vacant space.

Mid-week commuting at least appears to be back - and strongly. It’s just a pity the trains can’t be guaranteed to run every day as well.

This article first appeared on the MCA website on 18 April 2024.


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