Its going to be a lively political year in the UK in 2010

It's going to be a lively political year in the UK in 2010

All political parties are in 'full-on' election mode and this means ramping up activity to win support and votes across the country. Key political figures are making their views heard by outlining their proposals to improve their chances at the polls. As part of this, alcohol and its consumption have jumped to the top of the political agenda. We’ve seen various parties use alcohol to almost outdo each other in the media with different plans to cut binge drinking and alcohol-fuelled anti-social behaviour, which costs the UK millions of pounds each year.

What can we actually expect? Tim Wilson, managing director of the Wilson Drinks Report, considers the options.

For starters, prepare yourself for two Budgets. In March, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alastair Darling, will outline his pre-election 'sweeteners', swiftly followed by another budget in May or June by the new Government. It is almost guaranteed that duties on alcohol will rise significantly under any political regime, and the only question is whether increases will be targeted at specific categories or applied across all alcoholic drinks. Darling has already given us some clues, when he hinted that changes in the taxation of cider could be introduced in the March 2010 Budget.

Despite the fierce political debates surrounding alcohol, it’s still not clear which direction political parties will go and which duties will be raised. We asked consumers for their views. Our question: Which party will increase duty on alcohol the most? From a survey of 1,754 British adult drinkers, 23% thought Labour would put alcohol duties up the most, followed by the Conservatives (20%). Just under one third of consumers (31%) claimed all parties would increase alcohol duties.

Do the political parties’ views differ in how alcohol abuse should be tackled? At a glance one might say no, but there are some clear dividing lines. The SNP (Scottish National Party) and several politicians in Westminster have jumped on the minimum pricing bandwagon. Minimum pricing based on the number of units of alcohol in a drink is the preferred policy of the medical and police lobbies.

Minimum pricing could win votes. It is beautifully simple to apply and will increase prices for certain categories of drinks, particularly where drinkers can obtain larger quantities of alcohol at relatively low prices. There is, however, a sizeable fly in the ointment. It might be illegal under EU competition law and this is probably why the Tories, in their proposals, suggest targeting certain types of drinks (eg RTDs, super-strength beer and super-strength cider) with hikes in duty to push up the price of alcohol. A nice idea in theory but since these three categories only make up a tiny fraction of the alcohol market, it is unlikely to reduce consumption for most drinkers.

Whilst the Conservatives have made their views on minimum pricing loud and clear, Labour appears to be dithering. Andy Burnham, in support of his officials at the Department of Health, suggested that minimum pricing could be introduced, whereas Home Secretary Alan Johnson has not ruled out minimum pricing, but has said that he did not want to penalise “responsible drinkers on low incomes”.
According to the Wilson Drinks Report (WDR), an independent research based report on industry trends and changing consumer attitudes on consumption of alcohol in the UK, opinion is divided on whether minimum pricing will actually work as intended.

WDR research suggests that only 21% of drinkers would actually purchase less alcohol if prices were increased by 25%. Over 50% of drinkers would either just pay more for their drinks or switch to cheaper alternatives.

Given the big plans each political party has for tackling alcohol abuse and the impact this might have on adult drinkers in the UK, we asked various types of drinker how they expect to vote in the next election.

It seems that the lager vote could be key for the upcoming General Election. The voting intentions of lager drinkers are almost exactly the same as the overall sample of 1,657 adult British drinkers. The Conservatives appear to be in front in most categories of drinker, except cider and other (which includes stout). Interestingly, 7% of the lager drinkers said they would vote BNP, the fourth highest party after Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This is potentially quite worrying news for the big lager brands who may not be too keen on a strong association between lager and far right political parties.

In the run-up to the election we should therefore expect two things: lots of promises and tough talking on alcohol. The duty on beer and still wine has soared over the last five years at twice the rate of inflation. We expect this trend to continue as Chancellors use increases in alcohol and tobacco duties to fund other programmes. The more important question is whether this approach can really tackle the source of the drink-related problems in Britain.

We shall see.