Sleaze in political lobbying – are we surprised?

Ever since last week’s exposé of the political lobbying industry in The Independent, the media has been rife with politicians and lobbyists alike scrambling to pass comment on the issue. The exposure of underhanded tactics and dirty tricks within the industry, as well as the inappropriately intimate relationships between lobbyists and senior Government Ministers has resulted in widespread condemnation of the lobbying profession, but in reality there are two questions that must be asked. Firstly, are we surprised by this revelation relating to the prevalence of corruption in politics? But secondly, how concerned should we be?

The cash-for-questions scandal in 1994, relating to Mohamed Al-Fayed’s payment to Conservative MPs Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton for the lodging of parliamentary questions, shone a light on the lobbying industry, and presented its practices in a manner that had not been done before. Ever since this affair, demonization of the profession has become almost commonplace, a problem that has not been remedied by the continuous flow of revelations and scandals concerning the closeness of lobbying groups and politicians. It is undeniable to say that the link between politicians and these particular groups is extremely close, but in reality, is this not simply an inevitability of the legislative process? The close working relationship of the people who want to affect legislation and the people who can affect legislation is surely inescapable, and therefore it seems there is little that can be done to change the way in which this dynamic operates.

The scrutiny of Bell Pottinger is understandable, given its status as the largest and most influential lobbying group in the country. Founded by Lord Timothy Bell, Margaret Thatcher’s media advisor across her three successful general election campaigns, it is a major branch of the Chime Communications Group, which encompasses a wide range of advertising, marketing and public relations companies, and employs more than 1,500 people. As a mammoth business entity, perhaps a degree of opacity is to be expected in an ever-increasingly faceless corporate world, of which this industry is simply another cog.

Another issue for Bell Pottinger is their ill standing even amongst their peers within the industry; other firms are often unwilling to do business with them due to their previously publicized links to oppressive regimes and corrupt individuals. It is worth mentioning in this context that half of the firms contacted during The Independent’s investigation immediately rejected the business that was proposed to them. Smaller, more boutique firms within public affairs are more likely to work with pressure groups and third sector organizations than foreign governments and large corporations, and so it seems slightly unfair to speak of them in the same vain as Bell Pottinger. While it is more than a minority whose practices are questionable, it by no means reflects the work of the entire profession.

As to the issue of how concerned we should be by this apparently excessive influence of the lobbying industry on central government, the jury is still very much out. Some claim that lobbyists have little or no influence on policy-making, and that the videos that have been released of executives within Bell Pottinger claiming to have William Hague ‘on their speed-dial’ are merely examples of corporate bravado. It must be said, however, that this excuse comes most regularly from those within politics, many of whom have a vested interest in preaching the transparency of the lobbying profession.

Lobbying, in reality, is an integral part of the legislative process. Organizations such as trade unions and charities use lobbying as one of the cornerstones of their movement, given that putting pressure on the government is perhaps the most effective way of furthering their respective causes. This is not the side of lobbying that is under fire, it is the side dominated by professional and financially driven lobbying companies that is taking most of the criticism. As incidents such as the Stephen Byers  ‘cab-for hire’ scandal in 2010 have highlighted, the willingness of politicians to exploit their parliamentary contacts for payment is an inherent danger of the industry, and something that must be seriously looked at if it is to retain any respectability.

The most widely touted remedy for corruption within the lobbying industry is the creation of a statutory register, whereby all persons self-identifying as lobbyists would be forced to sign up to a central record, so as to make it easier to monitor the actions of the industry as a whole. This is an idea that has been somewhat restored to the forefront of the debate by the Liam Fox and Adam Werritty scandal, due to Werritty’s activity in a lobbying-like capacity without holding any kind of legitimate position.

The issue with a lobbying register however, is that it has been proved ineffective, particularly in the United States. Washington D. C. employs a lobbying register, which encompasses over 17,000 federal lobbyists, and yet the industry is perhaps even murkier on the other side of the Atlantic. It is a world dominated by what Americans refer to as the ‘Special Interest’, and an ever-increasing number of ‘Political Action Committees’, which effectively act as fund-raising committees for political figures or organizations. Newt Gingrich, the latest frontrunner in the Republican Primary elections, perhaps best epitomizes the ‘revolving-door’ that plagues both British and American lobbying, the idea that politicians and public affairs professionals move almost fluidly between these two occupations. Since leaving Congress in 1999, Gingrich has reportedly earned around $1.8 million through consulting for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, something which caused public outrage given the role of Freddie Mac in contributing to the housing crisis and continuing economic recession. Clearly, the presence of a statutory register in the United States has done little to alleviate the same problems that we struggle with in the United Kingdom in regards to the lobbying industry.

What is clear is that regulation in some form is necessary in order to restore any sense of faith in our democratic system. But what the US proves is that a governmental register, or any sense of central supervision, would prove ineffective. Without sounding like a moral idealist, what is really necessary is a crackdown within the lobbying industry itself, and a generally accepted practice of self and peer regulation. The Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) must view the adoption of these practices as paramount in the future progression of their industry, so that they may protect the credibility and integrity of their profession.

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Posted on December 16, 2011, in Coalition Government, Comment, Conservative Party, Looking Forward and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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