The cure for lobbying scandals is simple: More politicians with backbone

by Kevin Meagher

Come the nuclear holocaust, political lobbyists will work for the invertebrates, bartering for concessions from the reigning cockroaches.

What is certain is that the indestructible public affairs industry will get past the government’s wishy-washy consultation on reigning-in Westminster’s pin-striped influence-peddlers which closes today.

Spurred into action by a cavalcade of lobbying calamities, ministers propose a statutory register of public affairs professionals; once they’ve blown the cobwebs of it from the last time it was proposed. So back around the track we go.

Constitutional affairs minister Mark Harper is in charge of spinning this old record. The stated purpose of the register is “transparency” in a bid to “open up politics” and make it “more accessible to everyone.” A White Paper is promised in due course.

But a statutory register (replacing the voluntary one that’s already in place) is roughly the equivalent of one of those photographs of a house for sale in an estate agents window. It’s a superficial gesture that gives us a partial flavour, a rough idea, without telling us anything specific about the contents – and only a fool would draw a conclusion on that basis.

So how far do we want to go? The consultation poses lots of questions but offers next to no answers. Okay, it’s a consultation; but it doesn’t seem to have a point of view at all.

This is all theatre. This exercise is primarily designed to give lobbyists a public kick in their tailored backsides. Apart from that, ministers don’t know what to do. But here’s a prediction.

When the government comes forward with its watery proposals after this perfunctory consultation ends, little will change. Defining who is and is not a lobbyist is nigh on impossible. Not unless we start making arbitrary divisions between “good” lobbying and “bad” lobbying. And that way madness lies.

I guess we mean, by way of shorthand, that big business “buying” influence is intrinsically evil while charities badgering MPs is inherently virtuous. The problem is the tactics and methods of “respectable” campaigners and “sleazy” lobbyists are indistinguishable. In military parlance, you cannot tell the insurgents from the civilians.

Anyway, lobbying will play its much-loved trump card: pointing out to ministers the law of unintended consequences. We may want to clean-up the relationship between politics, vested interests and big money but we cannot even define in law what constitutes lobbying. Unless, of course, we want to capture every possible exchange between our legislators and officials and every single person who tries to shape their thinking?

Far-fetched? The committee on standards in public life this week recommended lobbyists should also have to publish if they are married to a minister, related to one or if they are a former MP. This from the same MPs used to employing their own family members? Hubris abounds.

Perhaps we should turn Westminster into the Big Brother house, with hidden cameras and microphones and put a live feed on the internet?

The point is that a draconian focus on supply while doing nothing on demand is nonsensical.

We are in danger of looking through the wrong end of the telescope here. It’s not the lobbyists we should be seeking to change; it’s the politicians. Our MPs are the key to cleaning-up politics. I’m not talking about ever more restrictive hoops for them to jump through and ever more abasing disclosures like publishing their tax returns; what we need is altogether simpler: a new, less servile, independent, better briefed – and more confident – political class.

This is where groups calling for lobbying transparency totally miss the point. Strong politicians with clear convictions and a consistent outlook are not easy to manipulate. Weak, inexperienced, under-resourced ones are. Of course this is a general rule – there will always be a few spivs who use their political skills and contacts for financial gain – and there always has been. But they are relatively few and far between and most are blundering enough to get caught.

And let’s be clear: no-one here has clean hands. From the egregious Neil Hamilton to Stephen “I’m like a taxi for hire” Byers, no party is fit to cast the first stone.

Although a register of lobbyists is in the coalition’s programme for government, what’s kept the issue in the public eye recently is a series of tawdry scandals:  The Adam Werrity affair, the braggdoccios of “dark arts” lobby shop Bell Pottinger and latterly the barrow boy shtick of former Tory treasurer Peter Cruddas. Cringe-inducing as each case is, with silly, chest-puffing bullshittery at the heart of it, it helps make the point that this kind of clumsy and vulgar form usually finds its way into the public domain.

Cruddas’ case is slightly different of course; this consultation is about reforming the public affairs industry rather than addressing party funding, but there is a lot of cross-over. Why do some people give money to political parties? To influence political decisions. Why do people hire lobbyists? To influence political decisions. The fact that the issues have not been joined-up just shows how lackadaisical this exercise is.

Yes, there are some dodgy lobbyists. But many fewer, I would suggest, that the number of bent lawyers and crooked accountants.

And, yes, a few lobbyists still portray it as a sacred priesthood in order to hoodwink gullible corporate suits. But the days of simply “having a word” with a friendly minister, MP, civil servant or adviser on behalf of a client are, in the main, gone.

Anyway, most practitioners have long since cleaned up their act and the reality of lobbying is fairly mundane these days, especially given so much information is now easily accessible and in the public domain.

Eventually we will get to a point when lobbyists trade solely on their knowledge and know-how and not on their contacts book. Frankly, the best in the industry long have. Similarly most MPs are neither stupid nor venal enough to alter their opinions and behaviour solely on the basis of an agreeable lunch – even when friends and former colleagues are picking up the tab.

The correct place to start is to recognise that most MPs – in all parties – are pretty straight. Let’s encourage them to know their own minds a bit more. And let’s provide them with proper independent policy support to help them formulate their own positions on the key issues.

The conspiracy theorists and gesture politics mob who want to choke-off lobbying will simply fail to do so if ministers come forward with weak measures, or we will see our democracy asphyxiated if they come forward with clumsy, catch-all ones.

But let’s use this moment to change politics as much as lobbying. Unless we beef-up our MPs’ ability to shape the policy agenda, rather be shaped by lobbyists of whatever hue, we will have missed a trick.

And the bottom feeders of the lobbying world will get away scot-free when this latest, predictable and toothless attempt to clean-up the industry fails to do just that.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut


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6 Responses to “The cure for lobbying scandals is simple: More politicians with backbone”

  1. The key point has been missed! The lobbyists are smarter than the politicians! We need to know who they are so that we can encourage them to come forward and become politicians…..

  2. swatantra says:

    Quite right, what we need are more MPs with integrity and MPs that can take up issues of importance without lining their on pockets Lobbyists have an important role to play in collecting facts and figures on issues and bringing tem to te attention of our Representatives but there should be a Statutary Register for them and for MPs to declare all their interests. Voluntary schemes never work.

  3. madasafish says:

    “More MPs with integrity”?

    I take it that’s a joke from any supporter of the Party with Ken Livingstone in it. (I could have said the same about the Tories with a long stream of criminals .. no party is free )

    MPs have been corrupt or have been swayed by influence from day 1 of Parliament. It’s inevitable given human nature.

    If you want to curb lobbying you need rules applicable to all. I suspect it would probably mean the end to any Union funding of MPs…

  4. Clr Ralph says:

    As a politician with integrity booted out for trying to be a politician with integrity by the Labour Party which supports, nurtures and promotes the worst elements of lobbying and corruption I can only thank the author for this article, the contributors for recognising the need to restore some professionalsim to politics along with some integrity. it won’t happen with the Labour Party.

    I am sorry especially for the great activists who give up so much.

  5. swatantra says:

    What we need is a grand inquisition ie an ordinary members panel which vets all MPs, periodically. Sometimes, being an MP turns out to be a job for life, and that is not quite right.

  6. swatantra says:

    There’s a conflict there. On the one hand you want ordinary people being elected to office and on the other hand you are asking for more professionalism of our politicians, so politics is beoming more of a profession a job a career, and inevitably you are going to attract more people out to make money and earn a living instead of public spirited individuals.

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