Lobbyists: the new hidden persuaders?

Saturday 20 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Conservatory

Is lobbying, in the words of David Cameron, ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’? A series of high profile lobbying controversies suggest it could be: the resignation of defence secretary Liam Fox over his ties to Adam Werrity, public affairs agency Bell Pottinger’s ‘bragging’ about access to government, the revelations to the Leveson Inquiry about contact between News Corp’s lobbyist Frederick Michel and culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith. And industry support for All Parliamentary Groups and the existence of firms solely created to influence politicians reinforce suspicions that politicians are buyable. One commentator argues politicians should be forced to dress like Formula 1 drivers displaying the logos of all their ‘sponsors’. Lobbying is now regularly characterised as ‘legalised bribery’. In response, the government is considering a statutory register of lobbyists, which could result in PR agencies, trade unions and charities being subject to fines and even imprisonment for ‘improper attempts’ to influence politicians. One of Barack Obama’s first acts as US president was to clamp down on the ‘revolving door’ which sees members of the administration walk straight into highly paid private sector jobs.

Transparency International UK tells us that there are five lobbyists to every politician, which sounds like a worrying development. But is it such a bad thing that politicians speak to representatives of relevant industries, unions and campaign groups before formulating policy? If politics is about the clash of different interests, is lobbying not an integral part of the democratic process? Would we rather have supposedly incorruptible, and unelected, judges and civil servants in power? Moreover, many lobbyists represent civil society groups rather than big business; Greenpeace is as much in the lobbying game as Bell Pottinger. Trade unions still aspire to negotiate for workers’ rights over beer and sandwiches at Number 10. Every charity has public affairs professionals to make their case to government ministers, whether on minimum alcohol pricing or nuclear power. Indeed the NGO sector is split on the issue, with some keen to expose unfair corporate influence on decision-making and others concerned regulation might be too severe.

Ironically, many lobbying charities are dependent on state money, and are described by critics as ‘sock puppets’, which allow government to lobby itself. Are such lobbyists bypassing democracy? Is it a problem that so much political debate is conducted behind closed doors by paid professionals, rather than by citizens openly in the public sphere? Or is there a danger that increased demands for audit and control and oversight of lobbying will undermine a key element of democracy?

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Simon Burall
director, Involve; chair, Democratic Audit; ambassador, WWF UK

Eliane Glaser
writer and radio producer; author, Get Real: how to tell it like it is in a world of illusions

Oliver Foster
managing partner, Pagefield

James Matthews
management consultant; founding member, NY Salon; writer on economics and business

Mary Monfries
partner, PwC; member, tax leadership team

Kirk Leech
interim director, European Animal Research Campaign Centre; government affairs, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Kirk Leech interim director, European Animal Research Campaign Centre; government affairs, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry
Recommended readings
The inexorable rise of the PR men

With firms like Bell Pottinger working for foreign governments, we must now question everything more, not less.

Alan White, New Statesman, 17 September 2012

Sock Puppets: How the government lobbies itself and why

In the last fifteen years, state funding of charities in Britain has increased significantly while restrictions on political lobbying by charities have been relaxed. 27,000 charities are now dependent on the government for more than 75 per cent of their income and the ‘voluntary sector’ receives more money from the state than it receives in voluntary donations.

Christopher Snowden, Institute of Economic Affairs, June 2012

The politics of persuasion gone wrong

Lobbying is an important part of democracy - but where does the line of acceptable behaviour lie?

Dan Hough, New Statesman, 27 April 2012

Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists

The Coalition Government is committed to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists. The Government already releases a significant amount of information at www.data.gov.uk. But we need to go further; a statutory register of lobbyists is an important step towards making politics more transparent. We are determined to keep working to open up politics, to make it more accessible to everyone.

HM Government, January 2012


OpenSecrets.org is the nation's premier website tracking the influence of money on U.S. politics, and how that money affects policy and citizens' lives.

Center for Responsive Politics

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency: Campaigning to end secrecy in lobbying

Lobbyists are paid to influence government decisions. So, whether it's the private healthcare lobby pushing for the current NHS reforms; or banks lobbying against reform of the financial system; or the construction industry wanting to get their hands on greenbelt land, the activities of lobbyists affect our lives in countless ways.

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