Opinion – Business must not be forgotten in election fever.

Make no mistake, campaigning for the next general election was already underway before William Hague turned the heat on Tony Blair at the weekend by demanding a televised debate. Interviews have been offered to the right media over a period of several weeks now, while views have been let known, unattributably of course.

And if we believe the headlines and briefings of the first weeks of 2001, the crucial battle for Number 10 will be fought over public services.

That’s if Labour get their own way. The Tories are doing their best to raise Europe and the euro to centre stage, however, in the face of widespread and increasing public indifference.

Whoever succeeds in raising or suppressing the debate over Europe it is, in many ways, immaterial to most businesses. That’s not to underestimate the impact of euro membership on UK plc, but the issue of Europe has been hijacked to become exclusively a political question, not a financial one.

And as problems in the NHS and on the rail network stimulate voters interest, the business community is in danger of getting sidelined at the hustings.

This is something that is in urgent need of reverse. Some 38% of finance directors we polled this week, expressed no opinion about the merits of an unprecedented second term of a Labour government.

That should worry more than Tony Blair’s coterie of advisors; the battle Labour currently faces is countering indifference, not seeing off William Hague.

Labour itself acknowledges it has more work to do in terms of fostering an entrepreneurial climate. Indeed writing opposite this week, trade secretary Stephen Byers says as much.

And while his shadow, David Heathcoat-Amory, details on this page how the Tories would stop the ‘regulatory tide’, cynicism remains rife.

Successive governments – including the last Conservative administration – have pledged to cut red tape only to see it rise under their period in office.

A ‘sunset clause’, as proposed by Heathcoat-Amory, that would ensure rules and regulations lapse after a certain period unless parliament actively decides to renew them, might be a good start. And by imposing a compliance burden on the rulemakers themselves, it would give MPs and ministers a taste of their own medicine.

No one in business would claim all rules and regulations are bad. But in the week when a Sunderland market trader was in court for continuing to sell fruit and vegetables by the pound, the need for a fundamental reform could not be more acute.

Related reading