After manifesto launches from the three major parties and a plethora of smaller parties, the Conservatives had established a lead of about five per cent in the opinion polls. But they have been unable to pull away from the pack and secure enough support for a reasonable overall majority.
I expect undecided voters to declare their allegiances in the last week of the campaign, which will mean either a tightening of the election or the Conservatives pulling away. To date it is too early to say which is the more likely.
Undoubtedly the Liberal Democrats' chances have improved, but it remains uncertain whether this will be a temporary fillip.
Whatever happens, it is probable that if any party has a majority it will be significantly smaller than Labour had in this Parliament, which will result in more horse trading to ensure that politicians enact the will of the people. Also, if the result is hung, do not be surprised if we have to go through the whole election campaign again in a few months' time. For the industry, there will be considerable changes to consider.
Firstly the result, whatever it is, will mean a considerable change of personnel at Defra. If Labour wins, Hilary Benn might retain his Defra role but his other ministers are likely to be shuffled outside the department. Industry insiders will be sad to see the departure of well-liked minister Huw Irranca Davies, who is expected to take on bigger roles even if Labour are returned to power.
If the Conservatives win, it will be all change at Defra. The only likelihood is that Conservative MP for Arundel and the South Downs Nick Herbert will take up the lead role in Defra, supported by a junior ministerial team that is likely to include south-east Cambridgeshire MP James Paice, who is a friend to the horticulture industry.
If there is a hung parliament and the Liberal Democrat Tim Farron is re-elected (his Westmoreland and Lonsdale seat is one of the most marginal), he may be given the lead role at Defra. This is because the Defra cabinet seat is one that the two big parties would not mind going to the third party. Farron is a rising star in the Liberal Democrats and is widely regarded as a friend to both horticulture and other rural industries.
Changes to the all-party group
In the All-Party Parliamentary Gardening & Horticulture Group, popular MP Brian Donohoe is likely to return to Parliament. But because of retirements the group will be losing its chairman Ann Cryer and vice-chairmen David Wilshire and Christopher Fraser, as well as former environment minister Jane Kennedy. The group will also be losing regular attendees Humfrey Malins, Betty Williams and Helen Southworth.
The group will likely reform at the start of the new Parliament with Donohoe remaining as secretary. But a new chairman will need to be elected and the choice of candidate for this position is likely to reflect the political colour of the party of Government.
There is considerable work to be done to get new MPs involved in the group and brought up to speed on horticulture issues. If you have new candidates standing in your seat, please use the election to raise horticulture issues with them and note their response for future follow-up by the industry. Indeed, if you run a garden centre or are a grower, invite them to visit your business, though make sure you are seen to be even handed if you are in a marginal seat.
One of the final acts of the Labour government was to push through the Flood & Water Management Bill. While the industry will be disappointed that this does not include a statutory code of practice for introducing hosepipe bans, the post-election consultation on the implementation of the bill is likely to see the wishes of the industry taken on board.
This week has seen the publication of the three major parties' manifestos. Among the relevant issues that may affect the industry are:
- Local community: Each party proposes increases in local community involvement and powers over decisions affecting the planning and control of green space. The Conservatives have outlined the biggest changes, including the creation of neighbourhood groups and giving them greater say in their proposed planning system.
- Water: The Labour and Conservative parties both propose further water management legislation, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats propose smart water metering in stress areas.
- Protection: The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have proposals to end garden grabbing. All parties also promise to protect green corridors and restore biodiversity.
- Agricultural wages: The Conservative party is promising to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board.
- Grow your own: Labour is pledging to encourage local authorities to create more allotments and will continue to develop this scheme within schools. However, with budgets for local authorities being squeezed, it will be important for the industry to lobby to ensure that green planting is not overlooked. The HTA's Greening the UK campaign will be one of the key vehicles for maintaining pressure.
- Taxation: There are various different taxes proposed, ranging from Labour's National Insurance increase to the Liberal Democrats' local income tax, with the Conservatives saying very little on their own tax plans.
- Research and development: There is nothing specific in any of the manifesto about horticulture research and development (R&D). Although all parties are committed to funding R&D, the levels of funding outlined vary.
Next steps for horticulture industry
Over the past ten years the industry has worked hard through Horticulture Week, the all-party group, the HTA and other trade associations and bodies to create a distinct platform for the horticulture industry within Government.
In the next Parliament, it will be important to use this platform to press strongly for the work of the industry to be recognised for its contribution to the UK's gross domestic product and to secure Government support.
Mark Glover is managing director of Bellenden, a public affairs and communications agency, who has worked with the horticulture industry for more than 12 years.