Party conference season delivers anything but bread and butter politics
October 26th, 2023
Now that the dust has settled on party conference season, it would be remiss to say that FMCG policy was high up the agenda for either of the main two UK political parties. While HS2 dominated proceedings in Manchester, Labour Conference provided a platform for Kier Starmer to woo the business community during his Leader’s speech – albeit covered in (hopefully biodegradable) glitter. But there was very little by way of concrete policy for the sector to get its teeth into.
Perhaps it is to be expected that party conference season focuses on the big-ticket items for Sunak and Starmer as they seek to define their approach to the issues that will likely define the forthcoming election campaign – housing, energy, and transport, to name a few. Getting into the weeds of policies including Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), Deposit Return Schemes (DRS), and restrictions to high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) products might not be too palatable for businesses or voters still navigating a cost-of-living crisis.
In fact, Rishi Sunak’s surprise move to ban smoking for the next generation was the closest either party got to outlining an approach to FMCG policy, and even this announcement was directly linked to easing the cost burden on the NHS. A cynic might even suggest this could be a ‘legacy’ policy for a Prime Minister firmly against the ropes.
But just how much is the decision to kick the can down the road damaging progress? Continued government delays to waste reforms have left businesses millions of pounds out of pocket, whilst Labour’s lack of clarity on recycling and HFSS policy makes it difficult for the FMCG sector to develop marketing strategies and plan investments.
To focus in on food, it has been six months since Henry Dimbleby quit his position as the UK’s food tsar amidst anger at a lack of strategy from the government on health and diet. Dimbleby, though, remains a formidable force, and following Conservative Conference, criticised the government’s decision to prioritise smoking regulation over the growing obesity crisis.
It wouldn’t be controversial to say there has been a lack of ambition to develop a coherent, collaborative approach to food policy, with the current government using the guise that any intervention will amount to ‘nanny-state’ politicking. For now, it seems the Conservative Party is keen to brush any policies that could increase the cost of the average shopping basket under the rug, to avoid the potential voter backlash.
On the other hand, the Labour Party signalled a more interventionist approach to tackling the obesity crisis and, at its conference, major retailers lined up to voice their support for mandatory targets and legislation to tackle unhealthy food – arguing that a voluntary approach isn’t going far enough.
While Labour’s shadow public health minister Preet Gill told conference a new ‘health mission delivery board’ would be established as part of a crackdown on HFSS sales and advertising, there remains very little – to pardon the pun – meat on the bones of Labour’s policy proposals. Labour will be aware that backing Dimbleby’s sweeping reforms could risk accusations of putting further strain on the pockets of consumers, and as such, the party remains paralysed on this issue – on the one hand pushing manufacturers to go further to reformulate, and on the other, avoiding saying, well, anything at all really.
So, what about waste and recycling reforms? Both EPR and DRS remain firmly on the backburner while businesses seek to understand exactly how the reforms will work together. Consistent household collections – or ‘seven bins’ – has been villainised by the Prime Minister himself, despite a similar policy proving hugely successful in Wales.
Given how divisive these reforms have become – with DRS becoming the first skirmish of the Internal Market Act – it seems unlikely that the technicalities of food and packaging packing policy will come into the limelight before the election. For Labour, a lack of resource in Shadow Ministerial teams may mean policy cannot be fully formed until, and if, the party gets into government.
But still, as parties’ wargame their election strategies, it is crucial to engage with influencers across the political sphere to outline the technicalities and genuine business impacts of policies impacting the sector.
On HFSS it seems likely we’ll see a change in direction to a more interventionist approach once any new government is in post and has got past the election hurdle, whereas packaging policy remains an open door ahead of DRS and EPR ‘go live’ dates in October 2025. But we know there’s an ambition to do more to boost recyclability and reform the waste system, so what will come next? It’s critical to engage now, to help shape and scope the debate, before the future direction of policy travel becomes too far set in stone.
Polling should always be taken with a pinch of salt, but it seems increasingly likely the UK will welcome its first Labour Government in 15 years – so don’t be slow to forge those relationships. With Starmer’s new-look Labour Party there is a legitimate opportunity for businesses to engage in the policymaking process, and to highlight to positive initiatives underway in the FMCG sector – whether promoting healthier options, low-and-no alcohol alternatives, or innovative packing formats.
At Grayling, our specialist FMCG team is well-versed in navigating this complex and volatile policy landscape. We are proud to help organisations:
- Target political influencers and media to highlight the need for a supportive policy framework.
- Navigate a complicated regulatory environment, identifying risks and opportunities on the horizon.
- Hero the positive consumer story to tell on sustainable diets and packaging, building brand affinity.
To speak with our dedicated FMCG team, please contact Michael Broughton via firstname.lastname@example.org