E-scooters at a crossroads
E-scooters at a crossroads

Posts Tagged ‘public affairs’

In Conversation with Professor John Curtice

Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, gave his views on the current state of play in British politics in conversation with Tom Frackowiak, Partner at WA Communications. With the Conservatives in “deep trouble” and Labour seemingly headed to power, his analysis of the polls shed a lot of light on the year ahead. 

The conversation is the latest in a series of events on the upcoming general election with senior political and media figures hosted by WA.  

Deep trouble for the Conservatives… 

With polling currently showing a 20-point Labour lead, it is easy to forget that for the first two years of this parliament the Government were never consistently behind the Opposition. The scale of the turnaround in the Conservatives’ fortunes can be put down to two decisive events: the unravelling of the Johnson Government due to the ‘partygate’ scandal, and the ongoing economic impact of the short-lived Truss Government. The first of these allowed Labour to decisively pull ahead of the Conservatives, while the latter pushed Starmer’s party up to 50% in the polls. 

Following the dramatic departures of his two predecessors, Rishi Sunak inherited the premiership amid high hopes that the popular former Chancellor could reinvigorate the Conservative brand and pull off a 1992-style election victory.  

However, his popularity has waned – having entered office almost 30% more popular than his party, both Mr Sunak and the Conservatives now have -49% favourability ratings. For this reason, Labour’s 20-point lead has remained consistent despite Number 10’s efforts. 

Sir John Curtice attributes Conservative malaise in the polls to a misreading of evidence on the issues that matter to voters. While Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, prioritises tax cuts, the public – including a majority of Conservative voters – favour using the proceeds of increased tax to invest in the NHS and tackle record-breaking waiting lists. With dissatisfaction with the health service higher than in 1997, rescuing the NHS will undoubtedly be a key issue during the general election campaign. 

On immigration, an issue prioritised by Number 10, the polling also suggests strategic errors. Not only does the subject not have the same salience to voters as the NHS or the economy, but evidence suggests that perceived government failure on the issue is pushing voters towards Reform UK rather than keeping them with the Conservatives. 

A mixed bag for the Labour Party… 

While it is undoubtable that the Labour Party owes much of its success to the chaos within the Conservative Party, they have made significant steps forward since 2019. With Jeremy Corbyn bequeathing just 203 seats – the worst general election result since 1935 – to Keir Starmer, the fact that they now look poised to win is a major achievement. 41% of voters now see Labour as moderate and only 19% as extreme, a major reversal compared to 2019. 

Nevertheless, weaknesses persist for Labour. Most prominently, Mr Starmer’s personal favourability ratings trail those of his party by between 5 and 10 points. This is a marked contrast to the superstar status of Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 general election.  

Labour has only a mixed record in its efforts to win back working class Leave voters. Amongst Brexit supporters – who overwhelmingly backed Boris Johnson in 2019 – Labour has gained some support since 2019. Yet more of these voters (17%) have switched their vote from Conservative to Reform.  

Labour has also not managed to reassert its traditional overwhelming dominance amongst working class voters, instead seeing a relatively uniform increase in support across class groups. 

Furthermore, a plurality of voters (44%) still believe that Labour is not yet ready to form a government. The party may be the bookies’ favourite to win the next election, but it seems that they will not be riding a wave of enthusiasm through the campaign. 

Despite these issues, changing electoral geography is turbocharging Labour’s large lead. Data from YouGov’s recent MRP poll – which prompted a great degree of controversy – shows Tory support experiencing its sharpest decline in Conservative safe and marginal seats, making Labour gains more likely. Meanwhile, evidence from the local elections in May 2023 show clear signs of organised anti-Conservative tactical voting among Labour and Liberal Democrat voters. Following the premierships of Johnson and Truss, unionist Scottish voters have shifted their support to Labour from the Conservatives – a trend that has only been exacerbated by the turbulence within the Scottish National Party. 

But take everything with a pinch of salt. 

As usual, disclaimers about the value of polling evidence must be borne in mind. Shock election results in 1992 and 2015 show that pollsters can get it wrong as methodologies are tweaked to adapt to societal shifts. But it is worth noting that even if the polls are overestimating Labour support, this overestimation would have to be unprecedentedly large for Labour to lose in the autumn. 

However, the UK electorate has shown itself to be increasingly volatile over the last decade. Poll watchers can no longer rest of simplistic assumptions. Boris Johnson believed in 2019 that he was headed for a decade in power but was proven wrong. With this in mind, it is not so hard to believe that Labour could win an historic majority in 2024 only to find themselves overwhelmed by the significant economic and international challenges facing the UK today. 

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In Conversation with Steve Richards — An Agenda-Setting Return to Westminster

WA Senior Adviser, broadcaster and journalist, Steve Richards and WA’s Head of Public Affairs, Marc Woolfson, gave their take on an eventful first week in the return to Westminster including the far-reaching reshuffle of Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet, as well as predictions for party conference and the repercussions of upcoming by-elections that are all to play for.

The conversation is the latest in a series of discussions with senior political and media figures hosted by WA, and we have outlined some key takeaways from the discussion below:

Leaders attempt to get a grip

Over the last two weeks, Sunak and Starmer have been getting new top teams in place ahead of a critical political period. Sunak attempted to capture momentum heading into the first week of term starting with a reshuffle of critical people into critical roles. This has been dwarfed by a nightmarish back to school week with the RAAC scandal dominating headlines and Labour capitalising on the government’s perceived negligence.

This week, Starmer carried out an extensive reshuffle of his Shadow Cabinet, coinciding with former civil servant Sue Gray’s first day as his Chief of Staff. The reshuffle saw many changes made, including the widely reported demotion of Lisa Nandy from the Shadow Levelling Up brief – a move some within the party deemed bold, somewhat brutal, and reflective of Keir’s win-at-all-costs mentality.

Angela Rayner has inherited Nandy’s Levelling Up brief which is set to deliver a historic transfer of power from central government to local and regional authorities. However, whether or not this shift in power will become a reality remains to be seen, given the substantial financial implications.

As anticipated, the most senior members of the Shadow Cabinet, and those with responsibility for Labour’s ‘five missions’ remained in post. Ideologically, there has been a power base increase of (what could be called) Blairite centrists. With a focus on fiscal rectitude, reform to create efficiencies, and ensuring all policy commitments are scrupulously costed – a position Rachel Reeves and her team are ardently championing.

This reshuffle, combined with the 20-point lead in the polls, has resulted in an uneasy excitement within Labour, as the outline of the next government begins to take shape and policy development gets in full swing.

Party conference fever

Unlocking economic growth via industry investment, transformative tech and R&D and will be a golden thread running through each conference.

For the Tories, this focus is reflected in the news that the UK is expected to re-join the EU’s flagship science research scheme, Horizon. And Sunak’s party conference speech will be an important attempt to show he and the party have a vision that goes beyond the next few months.

Echoing the rhetoric of Blair’s 1997 campaign, Labour will lean heavily into the theme of science and technology to regenerate public services and generate growth. Shadow Business Secretary Johnny Reynolds is set to outline detail on the industrial strategy – how the private sector and government can collaborate to facilitate fertile grounds for inward investment. This, alongside the green recovery programme – championed by both Starmer and Reeves – is regarded as the engine for economic growth Labour is committed to. However, it is unlikely we will gain clarity on the finances behind these strategies until given the green light by Reeves.

Starmer remains laser focused on delivering his “five missions”, meaning any policy recommendations put forward by businesses should aim be framed within these ambitions.

Bellwether by-elections

The upcoming by-election in Rutherglen and Hamiliton is a pivotal moment for Labour in Scotland. It is a litmus test for whether Labour’s messaging is landing well in Scotland and if won, is indicative of the electorate moving in their favour.

In Nadine Dorries’ contested seat of Mid-Bedfordshire, tactical voting between the Lib Dems and Labour may secure a blue defeat, but the Tory’s could win on a split opposition vote. A loss in this seat will no doubt stoke Tory fears that the Lib Dems are gaining traction in the so-called Blue Wall and will have implications for Sunak’s campaigning tactics. The Tories will also put up a fight against Labour in the election for Chris Pincher’s constituency of Tamworth.

Looking ahead, the most important event in the Commons calendar will be the Autumn statement on 22nd November, followed by the Spring Budget in early 2024. It is expected that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt will amplify the UK’s post-Covid growth rate as a triumph of the Tory’s economic policy that has then allowed for tax cuts. Whatever shape and size these tax cuts take, Labour will not be in a position to oppose them.

We are gearing up for an exciting, potentially election-defining, political run in the lead up to Christmas. To learn more about what this means for you, get in touch with WA’s team to see how we can work together.

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Spring Budget: warm words, limited progress for the life sciences industry

It is no surprise that the Chancellor called out the importance of the life sciences industry to the UK in today’s Spring Budget. Intensive industry engagement over recent months made its inclusion as a critical industry inevitable.

During his lengthy speech, he gave a few positive signals on the Government’s intent to boost the sector. He went out of his way to praise industry, particularly for its role during the pandemic, before making two new headline announcements.

First, Hunt announced an enhanced tax credit scheme for small and medium sized R&D businesses.

20,000 companies will receive £27 for every £100 they spend. This has already been celebrated by the UK BioIndustry Association (BIA), and is clear recognition of the need to do more to support biotech companies to develop breakthrough treatments in the UK.

Second, he announced new reforms to regulatory approvals in an attempt to speed up access to innovative treatments.

From 2024, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will allow for fast-track approval of medicines and technologies already approved by trusted international regulators, such as the US, Europe and Japan.

The intention is to support companies to bring innovative treatments to patients faster, while encouraging further investment and priority launches in the UK.

This announcement comes as industry has become increasingly vocal over their concerns that the UK is losing ground as a launch market. In 2023 alone, AstraZeneca cited a sub-optimal business climate as the main reason for building a new $400m plant in Ireland, instead of the UK, and AbbVie and Eli Lilly exited the Voluntary Scheme for Branded Medicines Pricing and Access (VPAS).

This pressure has clearly cut-through, and industry should be pleased their voice is being heard.

But, will this new MHRA process actually make the difference the Government hopes and change the direction of travel? Potentially not.

As heralded by Hunt in his speech, the MHRA was the first in the world to approve a vaccine for COVID-19. The regulator is already efficient and new schemes to speed up regulatory approval, such as Project Orbis and the Innovative Licensing and Access Pathway (ILAP), are already in place.

The biggest barrier to providing swift access to innovative treatments is NICE’s capacity to swiftly appraise the increasing volume of company submissions, and the subsequent potential for protracted negotiations with NHS England. Quicker licensing will do nothing if the resource and full system alignment are not in place.

There are also questions around how the process will be implemented. It could easily become a perverse incentive, with companies prioritising regulators with more appealing launch markets, such as the FDA, in the knowledge that the MHRA will fall in behind any license anyway.

It would also be naïve to view any announcement of this kind outside of challenging VPAS negotiations, kicking off in earnest this month as the ABPI set out their proposal of a 6.88% fixed rebate rate, which was swiftly, and strongly rebuffed by both the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England. Ultimately, companies remain deeply concerned about the attractiveness of the UK.

Labour could steal a march if they take a bolder, whole medicines pathway approach to access. Because while it is a good sign that the Government still acknowledges the critical importance of the life sciences sector, whether the bigger issues are addressed any time soon remains to be seen.

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A New Approach to Public Affairs

UK politics has changed and this requires a fresh approach to public affairs

The new government is working hard to look different to its Conservative predecessors.

The Conservatives now depend on northern votes and have adopted traditionally left-wing policies that benefit their new northern seats, including increased infrastructure spending and public service investment.

Policies need to work here, and quickly.

The rising cost of living is a top three voter concern.  Tackling it will trump promotion of the free market. Government will intervene in markets seen to be failing consumers.  The private sector will be valued, but will be expected to do more than contribute to GVA.


Still in Campaign Mode

Even with a majority government politics has the raw feel of a campaign as the Prime Minister seeks to consolidate the fragile victory he achieved in many new seats.

Stump politics is here to stay.  Ministers will call out when large executive pay packets or shareholder returns come at the cost of jobs.

Political and reputational risk for corporates and investors will be heightened.

No.10 is the campaign command centre and will exercise tight control over the rest of government.

The Prime Minister’s advisers will choose policies according to their popularity with the new coalition of voters that have delivered the Conservatives victory.

This is being tested through continuous polling and focus groups in new Conservative constituencies. Business interests must understand how proposals they take to government will be good for, or at least not harmful to, these new voter segments.

Policy decisions will be quick and announcements many.  There will be many initiatives to keep track of and understand.


No. 10 Control

Arms-length decision making is over. The new government believes unelected decision-makers have taken too much power away from politicians, and will take the opportunity presented by Brexit to reverse this trend.

Ministers are putting politics back at the heart of all government decision-making, and anywhere public money is being spent. Politicians will become more involved in medicine pricing, competition decisions and energy, water and broadband regulation.  Quango chiefs like Simon Stevens at NHS England and Andrew Tyrie at the Competition and Markets Authority will have less autonomy.

Post-Brexit economic success is paramount. There is a huge opportunity for inward investors. There will be an interest in pragmatic deregulation.  Government will be looking to business for answers to the investment and productivity challenges as they develop a new business policy. But they will be looking for positive solutions from business, not problems.


Public affairs practice, whether in-house departments or in consulting, must evolve.

Good advisers will recognise the context has changed and that this government has a new modus operandi.

They will challenge their cognitive biases about how decisions in government are made. They will un-learn much of what they know about how the Coalition and New Labour governments worked or failed. They will shake off any lazy assumptions about how policy traditionally gets developed.

Good advisers will challenge their clients to think about this government as different to those before it.  They will know that No.10 likes ambition from business.  They will apply fresh thinking when developing policy proposals to take to ministers. They will help the businesses they work for to innovate in order to be more in tune with government’s thinking and therefore get a hearing from ministers.


“Good advisers will challenge their clients to think about this government as different to those before it”


New techniques for two-way dialogue with politicians are needed.

Networks will matter, probably more than ever, but face-time will be limited. Given the anticipated pace of change, many ministers won’t have time to study complex arguments.

Attention spans will be short.

Creative and arresting ways of expressing an argument, using design, thinking and data will achieve more cut through than traditional policy briefings.


What does good public affairs looks like?

The best advisers will combine depth of insight with agility in providing advice.

Advisers have to take a deeper view of profound changes in technology, the economy, in society and geo-politically, rather than just monitor changes in Cabinet.

Trends must be understood, the data analysed.

At the same time, political decision-making will happen quickly, requiring rapid problem solving followed by well-structured advice.

The best public affairs consulting environments will embrace this change by building teams that welcome adaptive learning and divergent thinking.

They will recruit smart people who are client-centric but unafraid to challenge with their strategic opinions. They will be sceptical of hierarchy and of old ways of thinking.  They will embrace new technology, the need for data-led insights and new ways of working.

Consultancies built along these lines will shape a fresh approach to public affairs that will deliver outsized results for clients.


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