Author Archives: Tony Sophoclides

Were you up for Portillo (on lobbying)?

Last week, on the BBC’s This Week programme, former MP and memorable victim of the electorate’s wrath, Michael Portillo, spoke about the recent so-called lobbying scandal.

Since seeing it live – it’s on at about 11.30pm, putting off most viewers – I’ve watched it on BBC iPlayer many times. In about 90 seconds, he beautifully sums up the churlishness of portraying the recent stings on politicians as a scandal about lobbyists, even though none were involved. This is a point being made by many decent, integrity-driven public affairs practitioners, and one which is roundly ignored by the media.  [If anyone reading can tell me when the last lobbying scandal worthy of national media hysteria that actually did involve lobbyists was, please do let me know.]

But Portillo goes a step further even than that, expounding the crucial role that lobbying plays in politics. He goes so far to say that without lobbying, politics would not function. You can watch it here, 25 minutes into the show:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b02w2wxt/This_Week_06_06_2013/

Or, if you can’t be bothered to click on it, or are simply unwilling to catch a glimpse of Andrew Neil in the presenter’s chair, here’s a transcript of what Portillo said:

“It’s perfectly clear that the things of which these people are accused would be offences. They would be against the rules and they would certainly lead to their expulsion from their parties and possibly suspension from Parliament, and so on. So it’s perfectly clear that the rules are already in place.

Secondly, it’s pretty clear that these people were all caught by a sting; in other words, there wasn’t a real lobbyist involved at all… So actually, creating a register has nothing to do with what’s just happened… If you create the register, you simply allow people to find our more easily, the people that are genuine lobbyists and those that are journalists.

But let me make a fundamental point: all politics rests upon lobbying. The principle rooms in Parliament are called lobbies. And the reason they exist is to allow the public to come into Parliament and visit their Members of Parliament, and they meet them in a place called a lobby, which is the origin of the term, and the interchange between the people who have interests, which need to be considered or even protected by Parliament and the people in Parliament, is fundamental to the democratic process. And since time immemorial, to smooth the interface between the public and the different vest interests, and the Members of Parliament, there have been people who undertake lobbying, and lobbying can be a very respectful thing, and without lobbying, politics wouldn’t function.”

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The leaders’ debate: an apparently brilliant three-way bore draw

Andy Gray, Sky Sport’s chief football pundit, turns to anchor man Richard Keys: “No goals, no shots on target, no incidents of note. There’s no doubt about it, we’ve just watched 90 minutes of absolutely fantastic football on Sky Sports. Football is the winner on the day!” he splutters with feverish excitement.

A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but all too often the channel which has paid so much for the rights to screen live Premier League football spends too much time trying to convince us that it’s worth every penny, instead of occasionally admitting that the game we’ve watched was poor. They’ve invested too much in promoting the product as the pinnacle of televisual sporting transmission to admit that sometimes it just falls flat.

And I can’t help thinking that last night’s leaders’ debate on ITV has met the same fate. Despite my doubts about the whole thing (see my previous blog ‘Watching the party leaders’ mass-debate’), I’ll admit that it was genuinely exciting that it was happening. But the media’s almost orgasmic response to the whole thing leaves me mystified and wondering whether they aren’t just trying to justify years of clamouring for the debates to take place.

Read between the lines of many of the previews of the event and you’ll detect that the outcome was already determined, albeit on dubious grounds: Nick Clegg (with little to lose) would win because he’s unknown and therefore fresh fodder, David Cameron has a slicker media presence, so he’ll be OK, Gordon Brown is the incumbent, so he’s up for a pasting.

Expel those thoughts and watch the debate again. Clegg gave very few responses that informed us what his party would actually do to fix things. David Cameron – touted as the contender who’d feel most comfortable on set – looked truly terrified during the early stages. As for Brown, in many reports the only credit he is given is for cracking the first (surely only?) “joke”, even though it wasn’t funny and he fluffed the delivery.

There were no gaffes, no big punches landed, no real opportunities in the debate’s tight orchestration to pursue a robust and searching line of questioning. But no matter, the important thing, evidently, is that from 90 minutes, if you look hard enough there’s plenty for the media to contrive that will fit into their pre-prepared coverage.

A political counterpart of Andy Gray might more honestly adapt my totally fictitious quote at the top of this piece by saying “No own goals, no in depth policy discussion, no real probing of the leaders. There’s no doubt about it, we’ve watched 90 minutes of nothing much at all. The media is the winner on the day.” But that’s just not good copy, is it?

Call me Mystic Meg, part two: making it harder to win new friends

A fortnight ago I wrote of how specialist interest groups may struggle to win the interest and support of new MPs after the election and cited the Cyprus lobby as an example. On Monday, the BBC’s Mark Easton broke news of how more than 20 MPs had visited foreign countries – one of them Cyprus – and then not properly declared their interests when asking questions in Parliament in respect to those countries.

To be clear from the start, there seems little doubt that some MPs had indeed failed to follow the letter of the rules to which Parliament requires them to adhere. There is at least a case to explain and possibly answer in that respect.

But other aspects of the story made me seethe. I haven’t done my research but I’m pretty sure that if the BBC had investigated whether MPs had acted similarly when visiting, for example, Afghanistan, Serbia or Sudan, they’d have found that there were similar discrepancies. But the focus was on Cyprus, the Maldives and Gibraltar. The sorts of places that viewers at home would like to visit.

The story shaped up as it did in order to play to the politics of envy and to rankle with the public. So, you might ask, what’s the harm? Well, the story may be short-lived but the implications for campaigns for positive change and the pursuit of social justice and human rights are likely to be disproportionately damaging.

As a Guarantor Power with security responsibilities and military bases in Cyprus, the UK has considerable responsibilities towards a fellow EU state and Commonwealth member in its 36th year of division and military occupation following Turkey’s invasion. The Maldives and Gibraltar also have genuine and important issues, the short-term effects of climate change and territorial sovereignty respectively, on which the UK cannot and should not turn its back. In fact, we should perhaps be asking why more MPs don’t visit them!

Andrew Dismore, on whom the BBC concentrated much of the story, has thousands of Cypriots in his north London constituency, as do Theresa Villiers, David Burrowes and others on the list. Their constituents demand representation in Parliament on the Cyprus problem. It is the duty of MPs to ensure that they are informed on such subjects and to seek to further their constituents’ interests. Their having acted in the spirit of what they are elected to do should outweigh that they did not act to the letter of the rules of Parliament.

In 1997, I went on a fact-finding visit to Cyprus with a delegation of newly elected MPs from the main parties. They did not enjoy a lavish break by the pool at a swanky hotel and neither did they expect to. They had two days of intensive back-to-back meetings with Cypriot politicians, UN officials and the British High Commission. They then got back on a plane and went home, better informed about the issues, possible solutions, potential consequences and the responsibilities of the UK in Cyprus.

Although Monday’s story is already fish and chip paper, if I were a new MP, I’d be reluctant to take up a trip to Cyprus, or anywhere that sounds nice, for fear of the consequences. For a cheap dig at politics, the BBC have risked real damage to the work of those who seek to better the lives of others, both abroad and in the UK.

Call me Mystic Meg, part one: more woe for lobbying

On Friday I blogged about how politicians have been deflecting criticism by turning the spotlight on supposedly dodgy lobbyists. Two weeks ago I wrote about the uphill struggle that pressure groups, such as the Cyprus lobby, will face in trying to gain support in the post-election Parliament.

I should be feeling smug that the news in the last 48 hours has proved me right! Instead I am exasperated and angry in equal measures. For today, I’ll concentrate on the attempt by Dispatches to entrap politicians in a lobbying scandal, as I’m currently just too angry about the nature of the reporting of the story about MPs’ trips to Cyprus and could land myself in legal hot water.

Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon have acted without regard and respect for the rules for Parliamentarians and their suspension from the Labour Party is thoroughly deserved. But putting their misjudgement in this saga aside, it is surely true that the way in which politicians have drawn negative attention towards lobbyists in recent months will have been a motive behind the Dispatches sting.

The media are increasingly hell-bent on unearthing examples of politicians acting against the spirit of the platitudes and proclamations from within the political firmament. This can then be used to portray the whole of the Parliamentary machine as without principle, untrustworthy and on the make. Which, by and large, it isn’t, but that’s not the interest of the media. So how do politicians react?

In her statement to the House of Commons yesterday, Harriet Harman announced that the Government will introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, a measure that had been considered and rejected just a few months ago.

Do you see what’s happened? A news story breaks which involves journalists and MPs but NOT ONE LOBBYIST and, surprise, surprise, politicians kick the dog.

Lobbying on behalf of the lobbyist

As the green shoots of spring and recovery are appearing, so are the traditional signs of an impending election: the Conservatives are avoiding talking about Europe, Labour is defending its financial links with the unions and the party leaders’ wives are competing with their spouses for media column inches.

A more subtle sign is that politicians are diverting criticisms from the political arena onto soft targets. Bankers are number one on the list, but lobbyists are also in their sights. David Cameron has promised a crackdown on lobbyists if he becomes Prime Minister and it is rumoured that Alistair Darling’s budget will propose a ban to stop publicly-funded bodies from hiring them.

This bothers me on many levels, principally because the term “lobbying” just doesn’t apply to what our industry actually does. In more than a decade of working in public affairs in the UK, I have not been asked, either by a client or an employer, to undertake any sort of duty that would breach the spirit or principles of ethical lobbying. This is in stark contrast to my experience of working on Capitol Hill, where I saw the sort of real hard-nosed, direct lobbying that the public is being told is tainting British politics.

What we “lobbyists” do is to help our clients to identify, define, hone and articulate their messages, and to advise them who their target audiences are and how best to engage with them. Our clients might sometimes be multinational corporations, but so too might they be charities, trades unions or local government, or operating in highly-specialised industries or policy climates.

Sensible, robust governance depends upon clear, informed communications between the Government and those stakeholders which its policy, regulation and legislation will affect. And that communication is more crucial now than in the past, as career politicians with little experience outside the Westminster bubble are increasingly replacing MPs with real world experience, whether it was from commerce, the public sector, education or the armed forces.

Calling for transparency in public affairs is a no-brainer and our industry knows that its future depends upon maintaining a reputation for probity and professionalism.

My hope is that the fuss about lobbyists is simply diversionary pre-election politics. In my years in public affairs there has been one “scandal” that I can recall and that involved Derek Draper saying something a little silly, but ultimately harmless, about who he knew in Government. Hardly on the same level of deceit as, say, deliberately fiddling your expenses, is it?

Interest groups at risk in MP clear-out

Whichever party gains the most seats in the forthcoming general election, there is certain to be a higher proportion of new MPs in the House of Commons than for many years. While some current MPs have come to the end of their working lives and look forward to deserved retirements, the turnover in our political representation is also a direct consequence of the expenses scandal. The general public will widely regard this as a good thing: a positive outcome from a sleazy episode, which can restore some integrity in politics.

But another consequence of a large clear out of MPs will be the damage that it will do to specialist interest pressure groups, whether in health, manufacturing, biotech or any specialist sector, who may suddenly find themselves without the core of the support that has driven their lobbying and campaigning for years.

Worse still, if the interest group’s focus is of a historical nature, the new intake may not even be aware of the issue. Take my beloved Cyprus, for example, whose invasion by Turkey occurred in 1974. In order to have been alive at the time, an incoming MP would have to be 35. To have been aware of the implications and political backdrop of the tragedy, MPs would be old enough now to start thinking of retirement!

Such is the situation that those of us seeking an end to the Cyprus problem may soon face, as will other interest groups. But another common characteristic of such campaigning and lobbying bodies is that the reason they still exist is because the passion for their respective causes has not diminished over time.

Political change normally occurs at a glacial pace. But occasionally, something happens which changes the way we view the world and how we react to it. For Cyprus, and other interest groups, this is such a change. And the reaction must be to return to look at what it is that drives us to campaign. In the case of Cyprus it is social justice, the removal of foreign troops, a regard for international law and the chance for families to return to their homes and rebuild their lives.

We must go back to basics, restate the principles and reasoning behind our issue and present them anew, articulating them to new audiences who may know nothing and whose familiarity must not be assumed. It will represent a challenge, but this is no bad thing, for it is easy to persist with stale approaches when campaigning over a long time. If Parliament is to change, so must the approach of specialist interest groups.

Consultants: who needs them?

It may be an odd question for a public affairs consultant to ask potential clients, but what’s the point of consultants?

There are three reasons why you might use a public affairs consultancy:

  1. to supplement an in-house team
  2. as a substitute for an in-house team
  3. as an alternative to an existing, but deficient, in-house team.

But the value they deliver is largely in your hands. Getting the most out of your consultants is simple and here are some DO and DON’T tips to help you get value and keep the relationship healthy:

DO look for particular skills and experience that enhance your in-house capabilities

DON’T use consultants to do what you can already do in house

DO keep your consultancy on its toes by testing it against the market

DON’T put a consultancy through a pitch process if you know you’re not going to appoint it: it’s unfair and wastes everyone’s time

DO use them to challenge you with objective, external views; they may see things you’re too close to see for yourself

DON’T hire sycophants to tell you what they think you want to hear

DO listen to their advice, no matter how unwelcome; their fresh view might be more widely held among stakeholders than your own opinions

DON’T act on their advice without thoroughly questioning the reasoning behind it

DO use their networks to improve your political intelligence

DON’T expect access to Ministers: consultants should tell you who to see, when to see them and what to say. Politicians will meet with you because you have a legitimate right to communicate your business interests to them, not because a consultant calls them up

DO work with your consultants to define and hone your messages and materials

DON’T expect your consultants to articulate those messages: that’s your job

DO give your public affairs activities enough time and senior attention

DON’T be drawn into over-extensive stakeholder contact programmes with irrelevant stakeholders; it may just be the consultants trying to justify their fee

DO demand transparency of fees. If they charge a “management” or “administration” fee, ask them why – the practice is outdated: why should you pay extra for a consultant’s office costs?

DON’T blame the consultant if you give them no work to do; no good consultant is happy to take money for nothing

DO find time to engage with your consultants socially; a friendly relationship is usually a more productive relationship

DON’T let that friendly relationship stop you from challenging your consultant’s advice.

Businesses pay a lot of money to consultants. But both sides have an obligation to ensure that it’s money well spent.