MPs of all parties attending the Association of Convenience Stores' Heart of the Community seminar, the association's first large-scale political conference, were keen to stress that they recognised the important role played by small stores, and that they want to be kept updated on the issues and challenges small businesses face.
Tips from MPs about how to get your point across:
● Make an appointment to see your local MP at their next constituency surgery
● Write letters and prepare pro forma versions for other people to sign. MPs will act if they are 'deluged' with correspondence
● Any constituent is entitled to turn up at Westminster and demand to see their MP in person - but it is prudent to let them know in advance
● Identify your opportunities. Business questions, where your MP can question a government minister, take place every Thursday. In addition, MPs have regular ballots to hold debates in Westminster Hall on subjects of their choosing
● Consider writing to members of the House of Lords. The upper chamber contains many knowledgeable and experienced politicians, and a lot of legislation is developed there.
Cambridgeshire retailer and ACS vice-chairman Jonathan James has already had some lobbying success, by inviting local MP James Paice to visit his store. On the back of this, Paice asked a question in Parliament about the effectiveness of Fixed Penalty Notices for shoplifting, which was a key step in triggering a review of the entire process.
Jonathan told the assembled audience that activity such as this will help ACS to achieve a step change in how the independent retail sector is perceived by politicians.
He said: "We want to speak with real strength and to grow our influence. If my children join the family business, I want them to know that their dad was one of the people who helped secure its future."
The event was well attended by MPs as well as retailers, with Labour minister Iain Wright and backbencher David Kidney, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and colleague Lorely Burt plus Conservative MP Philip Dunne taking turns to address the audience.
Dunne admitted that businesses were a "soft target" for politicians because they don't have a vote, but continued: "We need to recognise how significant you all are to your communities and to the economy. There are 4.3 million small businesses in the UK and we need to give them the tools to get on."
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg paid tribute to local stores, saying: "You run your businesses, but you do so much more as well. The more informal, social and cultural role of local stores should be appreciated - and frankly I don't think it is."
Labour minister Iain Wright, from the Department of Communities and Local Government, claimed that the government was doing "everything possible" to help small shops. He added: "We recognise not just their contribution to the economy, but also their unique and vital role in society. In some areas, the local shop is the only sign of enterprise and entrepreneurialism. It sends an important message to youngsters about the value of hard work and enterprise."
But the event was not just a platform for political pleasantries, and the retailers got the opportunity to quiz the politicians on subjects including taxation and overheads, crime, tobacco control, planning and the activities of energy companies.
ACS chief executive James Lowman thanked the attending retailers for the "show of strength". He added: "There are on average 80 c-stores in each parliamentary constituency. If we could speak to every MP, think how powerful we could be."
Independent retailer Jonathan James' advice on effective lobbying:
● Look to build a lasting relationship with your MP
● Be clear about what you want them to do
● Be honest about issues - don't cry wolf
● Talk community, not party politics