How well do you know your local MP? With only a small amount of effort, you can build a lasting link with the people who run the country

The machinations of government and the lofty debates of the House of Commons can seem a long way removed from the day-to-day experience of local stores, but building a strong link between your store and your local Member of Parliament is easier to achieve than you might think.
In fact, it's a no-brainer. Despite the growth of the multiples nationally, independent stores have remained important local employers and at the heart of the communities they serve. And, of course, every MP - from the Prime Minister to the lowliest back-bencher - is elected locally so, whatever level of support the likes of Tesco may seem to enjoy at central government level, there's nothing an MP likes more than being photographed by the local paper at his local shop.
Having your MP on-side can bring huge advantages, ranging from a little local publicity to asking questions on your behalf in the Commons chamber. And often all it takes to start the relationship is a letter.
Cambridgeshire Budgens retailer Jonathan James first became aware of the influence he could wield when he wrote to his MP James Paice about on-the-spot fines for shop theft - a measure that Jonathan, in common with many retailers, vehemently opposes.
"Jim was absolutely brilliant," he says. "He came to the store to see at first hand what the problems were, and the following week he asked the Minister a question about it in the House.
"He raised the profile of the issue and then other MPs started chipping away. As a result, we've been promised a review of the entire Fixed Penalty Notice system."
Since then, retailer and MP have been in regular contact by email, and Paice has made himself available to lend support to many of Jonathan's local initiatives, such as hosting Soham police station in one of his stores, and has also offered to look into the retailer's ongoing issue with energy price rises.
"The local shop is a focus for a lot of the electorate, and MPs are keen to get publicity for supporting something local," says Jonathan. "Jim has a lot of power and commands respect both locally and nationally. When he gets involved, people listen."
Jonathan is the deputy chairman of the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) and the body is now launching an initiative to encourage retailers to form similarly close links with their MPs.
Under the banner of Local Shop Campaigners, ACS is hoping to recruit at least one retailer in all 646 UK parliamentary constituencies to build a relationship with their local MP. To start with, though, it aims to launch with 60 retailers and recruit more once momentum grows.
The programme will build on the success of ACS' Campaign Champions initiative, which saw several MPs visiting independent retailers in their stores, and a host of other political lobbying activity.
ACS chief executive James Lowman says: "ACS has had great success campaigning on the issues that really matter to local shops. This latest initiative is designed to take us to another level and utilise our greatest strength; the fact that we have thousands of members and they are an integral part of the communities they serve. Working together, our centralised expertise and the voices from the frontline mean we will be a powerful campaigning force."
Within the Local Shop Campaigners initiative, each participant will be given a starter pack including a 'who's who' of local and national decision-makers and a guide to effective lobbying, and will be given a regular tailored digest of political developments by email. In return for their commitment - which is undemanding in terms of time - they will be given a certificate to display in their store.
Jonathan continues: "It really takes no time at all to manage the relationship. As a retailer it can be difficult to take a day out to meet with someone or campaign for something, but writing a letter or email takes very little time - and can have a huge effect if it goes to the right person. In my case I make sure it's not just a one-way relationship, so I offer to help out if Jim needs any canvassing done, but it takes very little effort."
Jonathan believes that all retailers should view their local MP as an untapped resource, which can be used both for practical advice and to give local retailers more weight on the national scene. "As a result of that initial contact, James Paice has become a great supporter of ACS and sees it as an important and formidable force," he says.
"He recently joined us at a dinner for 18 MPs on behalf of ACS, which helped us spread the word.
"The key thing is that, when we want to raise a subject, we need to be able to do it effectively. As a retailer your first thought is that nobody at the top is listening, but through your MP your voice can be heard at government level."

How to get involved

To become part of the Local Store Campaigners initiative, contact ACS on 01252 515001.
ACS is intending to recruit all the Campaigners from within its membership, which includes all major symbol groups as well as individual retailers affiliated to the Association.
Local Shop Campaigners will be given an initiation pack which includes a certificate to display in their store, a guide to effective lobbying, and a 'who's who' guide to MPs and local decision-makers. Participating retailers will also receive regular updates on political developments via email.