The Thick of It


Monday, October 17, 2011

The unknown world of political lobbying

Today's newspaper headlines about attempting to uncover what is being painted as a "murky" world of political lobbying actually says something quite stark about politics. Lobbying isn't new and is a big money business. 

Every major company in the world employs lobbyists, as do all the major charities. Some of the biggest PR firms also have specialist lobbying functions, such as Edelman and Weber Shandwick. What these headlines reveal is an ignorance to the reality and perhaps a faux naivety about the level of business involvement in politics. 

A quick glance at the Association for Professional Political Consultants (APPC), the lobbying trade body for the UK lists 64 member companies and hundreds of staff. While it purports to "ban on any financial relationship with politicians" though clearly we can all see that the lines are blurred. What counts as a financial relationship? A politician might not be getting paid by a lobbyist but will be receiving information, briefings or hospitality. As a £2bn industry, the money has to be paying for something.

As someone who has lots of friends who work as both politicians and lobbyists I've been slightly surprised by the public's shock about this. I thought everyone knew. Clearly that isn't so. I've worked in PR for a number of years, before my recent move into advertising, and it was clear to me that the PR industry, often at the hand of the same companies that lobby politicians, was responsible for influencing journalists to write nice things about them. Yet I don't think most people realise this. 

There is a big difference between the rather unpleasant web of influence that Liam Fox and Adam Werrity's close working relationship through Atlantic Bridge has revealed, and that of companies or charities seeking to inform the policy making process legitimately through lobbying. 

When David Cameron predicted that lobbying would be the "next big scandal" he was right. Though I don't think he hoped it would afflict his own party. He then said he wanted politics to "come clean about who is buying power and influence." As that picture starts to reveal a rather sinister edge to his party, is he so sure he wants the public to know?

The public need to be educated about what actually happens. Politicians then need to decide whether they are happy to continue as they are. The more people learn about lobbying the less they may like. I hope that the legitimate side of lobbying that really does improve and inform government policy making, isn't thrown out with the bath water. 

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