Chris Blackhurst: Which?, the vibrant consumer body, is on the side of 'good business', says its chief executive – whoever's in charge at Westminster next year

Midweek View: In other words, Mr Miliband, it's not there to be bandied about as a Labour election accessory, so hands off
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The Independent Online

What can we expect between now and next summer, when we get to decide who will govern us for another five years? Well, broadly, lots of crowing and finger-pointing from the Tory side on the economy, on how they got it right, how they arrested monstrous over-spending and deficit-building by Labour.

For its part, Labour will go big on business, more specifically attacking those they perceive as the Tories' friends: the major corporations and their greedy, grasping bosses. The Liberal Democrats will remind us just how horrible the Tories would have been but for their caring Coalition partners; and how they too offer more responsibility than Labour.

It's Labour that detains me here. Ed Miliband set out its stall at the last party conference, pledging to freeze the prices of the Big Six energy firms and to break them up. Since then we've had repeated broadsides from Mr Miliband and his shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, against the venal bankers – and their pals the Tories for seeking to reduce corporation tax – and in favour of small businesses.

All the moves are deliberate. Labour is borrowing shamelessly from Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican US president who promised the electorate a square deal to combat "predatory wealth".

So much of it, though, is pure rhetoric. Get into power, Ed and Chuka, and you will soon realise it's not that easy. You will find, as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did before you, that putting fine words into practice, particularly where the markets are concerned, can be mightily difficult.

Which is why, when Mr Miliband suddenly springs what appears to be heavyweight, irrefutably independent backing for his proposals, the business community sits up and takes notice. On The Andrew Marr Show recently, the Labour leader announced that Citizens Advice and Which? would work with the new regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority, to set a programme for the year ahead. They would tell Parliament and the Business Secretary what they should be focusing on.

"We need a system in place to shine a light on broken markets," said Mr Miliband. He added that the best way to look after the interests of consumers was to create open, genuine competition. His government would work with the official CMA watchdog and the consumer groups to produce an annual competition health check, to force legislators to act when markets were failing.

Mr Miliband's claim seemed to have authority. After all, Citizens Advice and Which? are serious organisations, carrying enormous, unassailable influence. Among those with more knowledge of these things, however, eyebrows were sharply raised.

The whole point about these bodies is that they stay out of politics and they're not answerable to government. Could they really have allowed themselves to become aligned in such a fashion?

Sitting in front of me, Peter Vicary-Smith, the chief executive of Which? shakes his head. "Our involvement [with Mr Miliband's declaration] was minimal. The first we knew about the detail was 8pm the night before he made his announcement."

He adds: "Which? is now the largest consumer body in the UK with 800,000 members. We are an independent, apolitical, social enterprise working for all consumers. We receive no government money, public donations, or other fundraising income: we're funded solely by our commercial activities. We work closely with all political, corporate and regulatory stakeholders to achieve positive change for consumers."

In other words, Mr Miliband, Which? is not there to be bandied about as a Labour election accessory, so hands off. Mr Vicary-Smith is far too polite, too well-versed in the etiquette of Whitehall – as befits someone who worked for McKinsey before taking senior roles in fundraising in the charity sector – to let his annoyance show.

But read his words carefully, study the nuance, and it's plain. We're in the Grade II-listed building on the Marylebone Road in London that is the Which? headquarters. Behind the ageing façade are modern, steel and glass offices. Still best known for its product surveys and tests, published in its monthly magazine, Which? is today a large, wide-ranging organisation, covering what Mr Vicary-Smith describes as "three legs – reviews, campaigns and services. That breaks down into the magazines which review products; our lobbying on competition and consumer issues; and entering the market itself by offering advisory services". In this latter regard, says the broadly built, smiling executive (he's got a jolly, paternal air but he's earnest and sincere, too), "we're like subversive capitalists. We build a really broad, detailed view of how a market works – so we know about the energy market and how it works, and financial services. In all cases, in everything we do, we're always on the side of the consumer."

Campaigning is a huge part of his remit. "We've had six meetings with shadow ministers, 23 with government ministers since last summer. We operate right across the political spectrum. We're not pro- or anti-government; we're not for one side or the other." He stresses: "We've only got one constituency and that is consumers."

Mr Vicary-Smith says there was a notable lack of consultation on Labour's plan. If there had been, it might have been formulated differently. Wearing a bemused expression and shrugging, he adds: "I'm not sure how the Labour proposal will work – they want us to sign up to look at issues before they occur rather than, as at present, to look at them when things have gone wrong. Whether the promised legislative changes can produce that I don't know."

Don't get him wrong: "The notion of heading off competition issues before they occur is a good one – but we don't know yet how it will work in practice. We don't want to become too bureaucratic."

As we head towards the ballot, he's expecting more of the same, and not just from Labour. "It's all about the election. I do worry about a series of policy announcements which aren't policies as such but individual ideas masquerading as policies. It needs to be more joined up; the consequences of what is being proposed need to be more fully explored."

He's clear where some of the issues lie. "There are three main areas for reform in banking: separation of investment/retail; end to the greed culture; regulators to have real teeth." Which?, he says, is in discussion with the banks. "We talk to the major banks about how they remunerate their staff. They should not be remunerating their front-line staff entirely based on how much they sell – that just invites pressure and mis-selling.

"On energy, we have to separate wholesale and retail." And, lest there be any doubt: "Labour's proposed energy price cap has got nothing to do with us, with our lobbying."

He does not want to create the wrong impression. Which? will happily partner and work closely with other groups. He does not add, but he could: provided it's involved in the discussions, Mr Miliband.

Mr Vicary-Smith is immensely proud of Which? University, for instance. "We came up with Which? University by working with the National Union of Students. About 20 per cent of students receive no guidance as to which university to choose or which course. We said to Michael Gove: if you do nothing else, support this."

There's no exclusivity. "Which? has one constituency, which is consumers. We exist to do the best for them; that is it. To achieve that aim we will work with any party, any minister."

He's not bothered who wins next year – he will not be swayed from his task. "As members of a civil society it is beholden on us to secure changes."

Please, don't get the idea, either, that Which? is anti-business. "We're ferociously pro-good business; we're ferociously anti-bad business," declares its chief. When you think about it, that's a pretty handy election slogan. I'd vote for that.