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The Spectator and lobbying

One of my favourite reads of the week is the Spectator. I’ve usually finished the news section of it by Thursday night, leaving me ready for The Week – my other favourite read – on a Friday. And among my favourite three columnists there is James Forsyth, who does battle with Rod Liddle and Hugo Rifkind for which page I read first. Week after week, he writes insightful, thought-provoking, and revealing stuff.

But this week, for the first time, I confess he’s left me scratching my head. In a piece which takes as its premise the relationship between Liam Fox and Adam Werrity, he argues that the Defence Minister “is not the only politician to become entangled in the lobbyists’ web”, and claims that “lobbyists for special interests are a cancer on the body politic”.

I spent my last five years at Betfair trying hard not to get pigeon-holed into a lobbyist’s box. But it’s hard to argue against the idea that a large part of my day job was pure lobbying: from the moment we were told, in 2002, that we were ‘driving a cart and horses through’ forty-year-old betting legislation, and that “it would be remiss on the part of the Secretary of State not to do something about it” a lot of what I had to do to defend the credibility of the company in public took place in Westminster.

I knew so little about Westminster that when, one day, someone asked me what I thought about the composition of the Joint Scrutiny Committee, I replied, “what’s a Joint Scrutiny Committee?” Had I not had some excellent guidance from a very good lobbyist – Chris Guyver – I would doubtless have been sunk; and perhaps Betfair with me.

Today, a significant part of what my new company, Camberton, does is provide similar advice; so you could argue that my reaction to the article was simply natural umbrage  at a perceived slight on part of my existence. But I don’t think it was. What I found odd about it, particularly from someone who is usually so clear in separating issues, is the illogical way in which it ascribes ill in relation to one set of people, to what is apparently absolutely normal, fine, and indeed even positive in another.

Lobbyists, Forsyth believes, “distort our democracy, skewing it in favour of those who can afford their services. Their job is to become friends with ministers, MPs, special advisers – anyone with access to power, and use that position to make the case for their clients.”

Ignore the astonishing sudden adoption by the Spectator of a position critical of the idea that some people can afford things and others not (which I might have expected to see in one of my other regular reads, the New Internationalist). Even leaving that aside, I don’t see the logic of an article predicated on this opening gambit.

I have met James a couple of times – both times at dinners with MPs. The more recent one, we happened each to be sitting on either side of a government minister. I barely spoke to the Minister because he and James were deep in conversation for most of the meal, discussing – not to say arguing about – government policy. I have no doubt that the conversation contributed to the formulation of James’s views for a subsequent article. Bright though he obviously is, I can’t imagine that he can come out with all his views in isolation: he must arrive at an opinion through cogent discussion. So, too, must the Minister.

Indeed, you might say that it is the job of every political correspondent to get to know Ministers, MPs, special advisers, and people with access to power. I shouldn’t think that they kid themselves that they are suddenly bosom buddies, even if (as is true of any work environment) some good friendships are obviously formed. You might argue, tenuously, that the political correspondent has the relationship in order to hold the Minister to account. But if the printing of political views is not also the subtle lobbying of a publication’s readership, then perhaps someone can explain to me why this same week’s edition of the Spectator has a series of articles under the catch-all title, “Say no to windfarms”.

I am not suggesting any wrong in their having these discussions – the opposite, in fact. Ministers and advisers, no less than journalists, should hear both sides of a case, and argue it to death. If their time is to be well spent, contrary positions must come from people with expertise, which therefore almost certainly means people with a vested interest. So to argue that lobbyists who take clients in to make those arguments are skewing democracy seems curious.

Of course, it is undeniable that it is easier to have a conversation with someone you have spoken to in the past. But lobbyists are not hired because of on-going relationships, or the lobbying industry would fall apart with every new election. They are hired, like other consultants, because they have expertise in a field. That expertise allows them to provide resource to companies whose other alternative would be to hire (and presumably later fire) internal people every time the government opened a new consultation affecting them or a Select Committee had an inquiry. They don’t make the argument themselves: they advise people on how to make it effectively, and who to talk to. I can’t see the threat to democracy from that. And I can’t see the logic implied by the apparent distinction between internal and external lobbyists. One is simply an outsourced version of the other.

Either way, they have an important role to play. The viability of any businesses can be subject to the whim of government, and in the event that its industry is affected, a business needs to argue its case, and – in the absence of an internal resource – be able to hire in consultants to help. Just as businesses don’t all have an army of lawyers on staff just in case they have a legal issue, so don’t they have political experts on staff just in case the government decides to look at their particular field. Having someone who is able to identify who might be interested in your subject (and who definitely won’t) doesn’t mean that lobbyists have Ministers, and others, in their pockets.

Equally, the claim that some can afford access where others cannot makes little sense: most lobbying is done by corporates, who can build it into their budgets as a cost of doing business, if they so choose. Sure, bigger companies can hire more people and spend more time pushing their point; but so, too, can they advertise more, and seek to influence broader public opinion, just like they can hire more, bigger, more expensive, and presumably better lawyers if something goes wrong.

An individual with a position on an issue can go and visit his local MP, and make his case; and if he makes it well, that MP may seek to galvanise support on his behalf. That, too, is lobbying. I don’t understand on what basis the industry is fine as an amateur pursuit but suddenly wrong when it becomes professional? Any campaign to secure any outcome involves lobbying – whether you’re trying to stop the local church from replacing its flagpole with a mobile phone mast (as is currently happening in Barnes), or trying to make sure that you aren’t legislated out of business by unnecessarily onerous legislation in the Gambling Act – an instance where, as it happens, the smallest operator won.

Ministers, MPs and advisers are not, we would hope, so weak that they make decisions on the basis that they are mates with the person who presents them with a case. Most of them weigh up the arguments on both sides, and then come to a decision of their own. That’s what happens in every walk of life, every day. What is important is that both sides are heard. Indeed, it is surely far worse when, as I have seen happen, an MP takes a position purely because it suits a major local constituent without being prepared to talk to the other side to hear an opposing view.

I have no idea what Adam Werrity has or hasn’t done. I don’t know if he’s a lobbyist or not. I do know is that if, by virtue of his friendship, he has unduly influenced policy; if, as James alleges, “Fox, as a favour to his best man, ignored the rules” [my italics], then that is wholly wrong. But that is no reason for saying that the rules themselves are inadequate, or that the professional industry is corrupt.

After the expenses scandal broke, the behaviour of the few influenced the approach to the many in a way which has undermined the ability of good people to do effective jobs. Similarly, allegations over phone hacking are now regularly used to impugn the integrity of sensible journalists and investigative journalism in a manner which risks restricting the freedom of the press. Their cover story this week suggests that the Spectator considers that lobbyists should be the next target. I’m surprised that a publication of its intelligence should succumb to such lazy thinking.


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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Blame displacement | Mark Davies linked to this post on October 19, 2011

    […] I had a pop at the Spectator the other day for what I see as their lazy thinking about lobbying, but to be fair to them, they are right in the thick of what is becoming conventional wisdom: that lobbyists somehow need dealing with because of the Adam Werrity affair. […]

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