Everybody hates lobbyists. That is the only conclusion I can draw from the fallout from the Fox-Werrity debacle. A consensus seems to be solidifying that the lesson of the scandal is that lobbyists need to be tamed. We seemed to have passed pretty quickly through the stage where we blame ministers, and the Prime Ministers that defend them, for their appalling lack of judgement, if not their complete contempt for the standards of behaviour they expect of the rest of us. No, what we need is to register feral and rapacious lobbyists, to protect ministers from their own hubris.
Because everyone hates lobbyists. I knew that, of course: lobbyists are short-hand for the henchmen of modern corporate villains. They are the handmaidens of nefarious of big pharma, big oil, big tobacco. The movie Thank You for Smoking nailed the profession. Hell, even Family Guy has taken a shot. Maybe it’s because I’m contrary, but when I was one, I delighted in answering the question, ‘What do you do?’, with a shameless, ‘I’m a lobbyist’ just to watch the flinch of discomfort on the questioner’s face.
Because everyone hates lobbyists, what we need to do is establish a register of them – agency and in-house – so that we can track their movements and meetings, shedding light on the murky world of influence. Except it won’t work, at least not as intended. The agency-side is dealt with easily, but we already know who they are: the members of the Association of Professional Political Consultants are already publicly available. The freelancers would be harder to track down, since it would be tricky to draw up the terms for any ‘licence to practice’, but I suppose it could be done. But the in-house teams? Impossible.
I worked in ‘government relations’ in an in-house capacity. But that term, or the words ‘public affairs’, were nowhere near my job description, let alone job title, for half of my time there. More importantly, the most effective lobbyists in my organisation – in the sense of actually influencing public policy – were the senior managers and board members who would talk to ministers and senior officials in the course of their primary duties or in the social situations they habituated. Is it really meaningful to register such a wide pool of people? Every chief executive and chair of every charity with a point to make about the protection of birds or the safety of children? Because that’s what lobbying is about too; not just the big corporations buying access, but ‘nice’ causes making their voice heard.
Even lobbyists hate lobbyists, even if they see them as essential to an effective democracy. In a piece yesterday Henneke Sharif made the point that government is complex and difficult to navigate (aka ‘bonkers’), and consequently it is the causes without privileged access that need lobbying most. The underlying social, economic and occupational structure mean that big oil will always be better placed to get the minster’s ear than the child poverty campaigners.
If anything, professionalised lobbying levels the playing field. In much the same way, professional electricians allow social science graduates to benefit from artificial light (to me, electricity is more complex, difficult to navigate, and bonkers than government). That’s why I think Henneke makes a much more interesting proposition for rehabilitating lobbying than a register when she argues that:
“the lobbying industry should offer a free advisory service to small groups who, for whatever reason, need to enter the political arena.
“Every practitioner could offer a free consultation covering such advice as: the background to a policy, how to frame an argument, the relevant decision-makers, what activity to take along. Perhaps professional recognition would depend on this sort of thing being made available.”
Surely it is better to make the public policy process more open and accessible to more people, and to make more widely available the tools to navigate the complexities of the system? A record of everyone employed to influence public policy would be vast and incomplete; a diary of meetings, with or without officials present, would be cumbersome and incomplete; ‘good causes’ would find it even harder to make their case; and you know what? Big oil would still get the ear of the minister, at family weddings, if not in Whitehall.