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What does the general election mean for fashion?

Katie Ross
23 May 2024

Rishi Sunak announced yesterday that the next general election will take place on 4 July. In response, speaks with fashion trade associations and think tanks to find out what the industry wants to see, whether the UK has a change of government or not.

We can all admit that the 4 July general election announcement came as a small surprise. Like everyone else, the fashion and textiles industry had been preparing for a November general election. The Tories had other ideas.

This has meant that trade associations are undergoing somewhat of a mad scramble to get manifestos ready for a much shorter deadline. Paul Alger, director of international affairs at the UK Fashion & Textile Association (UKFT), tells that prioritising has been difficult, but that the UKFT’s demands will be the same, “whether the next government is red, blue, or a mixture”.

“We will be lobbying for a much better deal for exporters, not just for fashion and textiles but across the board,” he says.

The UKFT wants to see aided support for companies, particularly newer ones, to be supported with grants that will allow them to show at trade shows internationally.

“Industry insiders are telling us that newer companies are not going to keep doing international trade shows as they can’t afford it,” he says. UK brands struggle to compete with the French who receive grants for trade shows, and the Italians who receive 60-80% grants. “UK brands are forced to rely on their own dollar,” Alger adds.

The UKFT will also be “pushing very hard for a new British VAT refund scheme,” he continues, “encouraging international travellers to focus their retail spend in the UK.” Britain is losing out on shoppers who are turning to EU countries like France for VAT refunds, where shoppers can get 12% of their spend back through VAT.

“UK shoppers are heading to Paris for VAT refunds,” says Alger. “Or Americans might tack on an extra couple of days to their trip so that they can leave the UK and bag some bargains in Paris.”

One think tank that has finalised its manifesto ahead of time is Fashion Roundtable. Its Co-founder, Tamara Cincik, told that this might be a possibility if the Conservatives are reelected.

“Another Conservative PM might bring back tax-free shopping which Sunak dropped as Chancellor. It depends on what vision for the UK the next version of a Conservative government might have,” she says.

“A Singapore-on-Thames version will see deregulation and courting of fast fashion brands like Shein who are being courted to list on the London Stock Exchange, and former chancellor Sajid Javid is being mooted as a new Shein Board member,” she continues.

She adds that a business-focused government will see the end of the VAT RES, and a coalition with the Lib Dems – which she admits is unlikely – would see greater alignment with the EU.

The EU trade agreement is the UKFT’s most important demand, according to Alger.

“It’s clearly not working for businesses in general,” he says. They want to make it easier for UK companies to trade with the EU. “It’s still our largest market but UK exports for fashion have dropped dramatically in the last few years. Whoever the government is in July, they need to make it work better for British businesses.”

This means in both directions. “The UK and EU are each other’s natural markets so anything that can improve that relationship is good thing,” says Alger. The UKFT believes that the UK should be joining a Pan-Euro-Mediterranean agreement on tariff codes, which would “solve complex supply chain issues into and out of the EU and other countries.”

The final point was education. According to Cincik, Fashion Roundtable wants to see a “clear strategy on creative education, a public policy procurement strategy which buys from brands who make the clothing – not just owned – in the UK.”

“This would transform manufacturers' order books which as we have seen with Matches' closure have been hard hit by the vagaries of the UK market.”

From Labour, Cincik was excited by the focus on STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics).

“They are committed to STEAM education which does place creativity front and centre of the education system,” she says, “something which has been lacking from the last 14 years which has been a STEM education system in state schools, massively impacting state educated children learning the arts and entering the creative industries.”

Cincik says it is essential that the Labour Party are held to their promises. “They see creative jobs as central to their growth agenda for the UK economy,” which she agrees with. “The renegotiation of the UK-EU deal in 2026 will have to see greater alignment with the EU as the red tape, delays and costs are severely impacting businesses, the majority of which are of course SMEs.”

Cincik says that one policy missing from both sides is a public procurement strategy to ensure the stabilisation of orders as what business needs is certainty of orders and consistency.

“The US has made a public procurement policy and such a policy could transform the sector in the UK and then allow manufacturers to work with our talented micro and small businesses as they would have the financial stability to do so,” she says.

Essentially, “the next government must create a policy environment that embraces retail and allows the industry to grow and invest,” says Tom Ironside, director of business and regulation at the BRC.

“The next government must create a policy environment that embraces retail and allows the industry to grow and invest. This means supporting growth by reforming our broken business rates system; supporting skills by creating greater flexibility in the apprenticeship levy; and supporting sustainability by creating a recycling system that works for businesses and households, and is consistent right across the UK.”

With six more weeks to see what the next five years will hold, the industry can only hope that the next government, “whichever colour” can deliver on its demands.

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