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We were delighted to co-host an event with ComRes today on what the polls are telling us, and what it means for public affairs. ComRes took everyone through the latest predictions on the general election outcome, and I gave a presentation on what we at Westminster Advisers think good public affairs looks like this year. Some of those attending asked for a summary of my presentation, which is as follows (you can view the slides here).

Our central point is that regardless of the outcome of the general election, we in public affairs must prepare our clients for the impact that fragmentation of support for political parties is having on the political process. We now have a genuine multi-party system where the influence of the major parties has waned whilst smaller parties are having a bigger, some might say disproportionate, impact on the political decision-making process. You may end up with a situation where three or more parties are negotiating on putting together a programme for government.

We highlighted some of the biggest political challenges in the year ahead, namely:

  • More deficit reduction. For a lot of us in public affairs, regardless of who wins power in May, the spending review that we are expecting towards the end of this year is as big a political event as the election itself. The Institute for Fiscal Studies expect 60% of austerity to be delivered under the next parliament. If you work in an area that’s sensitive to public spending, the period between the election to the Autumn Statement will be a key time where major decisions on spending will be taken.
  • The potential for a second election or further changes in government before 2020. There is a chance that there will be a second election if there is no clear victor or set of victors in May. On the other hand, the rules on fixed term parliaments mean there could be a change of government without a further election being required. If a government that is formed in May subsequently faces a vote of no confidence against it (passed by a simple Commons majority), then another government can be formed provided it gets a vote of confidence within 14 days of the no-confidence vote, without parliament being dissolved and an election being held.
  • Tackling some of the biggest policy challenges ahead, after deficit reduction, namely constitutional reform (our relationship with Europe, a reopening of discussions with the SNP on devo-max to Scotland, and further devolution of powers to city regions).

We then gave the audience five key considerations for good public affairs this year:

  • Understand how decisions will be made under a multi-party system. With potentially three or more parties negotiating on how to form a government, and thereafter how to take big decisions on an ongoing basis, public affairs advisers need to think about all the smaller parties' priorities and how they will mesh together with, or influence, either Labour or Conservative plans. Understanding what those policies are, where the pressure points lie and who the negotiating teams are is vital.
  • The power of parliament increases. If a government is formed with no natural overall majority or a slim majority, it will have to listen to backbench MPs a lot more. For this reason, people in public affairs need to burnish their parliamentary lobbying skills because select committee inquiries, backbench debates and even Early Day Motions will carry more weight. Get to know the different party whips because they may be key in brokering deals between parties if there is a minority government or pact between parties. Also understand how delegated legislation works, because if there is a weak government and it can only pass major pieces of legislation (namely the Finance Bill each year), it may have to resort to governing using powers granted by previous Acts of Parliament.
  • The civil service becomes more influential. The civil service will remain impartial, but it will be a constant in a year of political change. New ministers will rely on officials even more to advise on how to forge agreement across government (especially if different parties are in power simultaneously) and in parliament. We also don’t see as much preparation by political parties on how to implement their policies if they win power, as there was last time.  For that reason the civil service will have a bigger role in determining implementation than in, say, 2010 where Francis Maude’s implementation unit had done a lot of groundwork.
  • Stakeholder lobbying will have more impact. Understand who outside parliament and Whitehall is for you or against you, because ministers with a limited support in parliament and facing the prospect of a further election will pay more attention to the media, NGO campaigning and public opinion. Shore up relationships with friendly journalists, do the rounds with stakeholder groups and pay for ComRes polling into public opinion if you think it’s going to demonstrate support for what you want to achieve.
  • Where power lies in government and the established political parties. Each of the three established party leaders face leadership challenges if they are deemed to have failed in May. If Cameron is successful, the modernisers will not have the free hand to negotiate with the Lib Dems like they did in 2010. If Miliband is successful, the unions will be particularly influential and we would imagine his government will be one of a weak No.10, a strong Treasury, and Cabinet Ministers ruling their departments much more autonomously than under previous Labour leaders.