Tag Archives: democracy

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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Political scandal? Time to kick the dog again…

Last year I blogged about lobbying, pointing out how the poor old lobbyist seems to be the end of the easy target in a political crisis, the dog that politicians and media go home and kick at the end of a bad day.

It seems that history is repeating itself and, once again, a lazy shortcut down the path to an unpopular but misunderstood cohort of practitioners of the supposedly ‘dark arts’ of lobbying is once again being beaten.

The scandal of Liam Fox’s friend Adam Werrity has predictably resulted in a call for tighter restrictions and regulations on lobbyists. This case is very similar to last year’s case on which I blogged – insofar as it hasn’t actually involved a bona fide lobbyist!

Proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists have long been supported within the public affairs industry, mainly because the industry has nothing to hide. In the recent case, it was Adam Werritty, who must surely have had no doubt that what he was doing was not wholly ethical or above board. In other words, he did have something to hide.

Being neither a lobbyist or in a position where he would have wanted to publicise his dubious activities, how on earth would a register of lobbyists have made a difference? Werritty would not have been required to be on the register – he’s not a lobbyist, he’s just a chancer of a businessman who abused the position of a friend. And even if he were a lobbyist it is unlikely that he would (a) register himself and put himself up for scrutiny or (b) given his clear lack of moral or ethical compunction, be swayed by any statutory requirement to register.

But once again, the whole saga provides two of the most abhorred sections of society – politicians and journalists – to take the moral high ground and kick the lobbying dog. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh?

X Factor politics, Hammer Horror policies

I attended a Conservative Party business event this morning, addressed by David Cameron. It was billed as Supporting Small Business and Building the Big Society. Unfortunately, the clamour from the media throng for his answer to the X Factor-like surge from the Liberal Democrats, meant that there was precious little space for him to say much about business.

But beyond the brouhaha surrounding National Insurance Contributions, you will learn little from the media on what each of the parties are offering business. The curse of reality TV politics, is that there is now even less space for policy debate in any area, let alone on business issues.

True, David Cameron did mention cutting Corporation Tax and exempting new businesses from paying National Insurance on the first 10 new jobs. But it was hard to get away from hung parliaments and attitudes to Nick Clegg.

Each of the parties has dedicated sections in their manifestos and websites on policies for business. The Conservatives will reduce red tape and form filling, simplify business taxes and make rates relief automatic for small business. Labour’s proposals include cutting regulatory costs, doubling the capital gains allowable under Entrepreneur’s Relief and temporarily increasing small business rate relief. Like the two main parties, the Liberal Democrats say that they will remove unnecessary regulations. They will also establish local enterprise funds, stimulate bank lending to business and part-privatise the Royal Mail.

As with manifestos as a whole, the wording can often be couched in such general terms that the promises can, sometimes, mean anything to anyone. People running businesses will make their own judgements on which party they would prefer in power. But regardless of which party wins, scrutinising manifestos will not be enough for business to ensure that the new Government implements policies that enable them to flourish. Businesses, whether individually or through trade associations, will need to engage with policy makers as soon as possible after the election. The purpose is not just to anticipate policy but to try and shape it before it is finalised.

Forecasting the election result has now got a lot more complicated. We may even be facing the prospect of a hung Parliament, with either a minority Government or a coalition. In these circumstances, and especially in the latter, manifestos go out the window to be replaced by policy programmes based on political horse-trading.

Businesses, as well as the financial markets, don’t like uncertainty. But post-election uncertainty is also an opportunity for business to exert its influence on future policy. But they must engage proactively with policy makers, be they ministers, advisers or officials if they want to see a policy mix that enables British business to thrive and expand. Failure to do so could result in the X Factor politics being generated by the leaders’ television debates, producing a Hammer Horror for business.

Give me President Zuma over King Charles any day

So President Zuma of South Africa is in town for a shindig with the Queen. The media is holding its collective nose and offering sympathy that Her Maj has to endure such an appalling, untrained houseguest.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be so keen to have him shack up at mine either, but then my two-bed flat would ill accommodate his clutch of wives and none of my friends’ daughters would be safe from his libido. I’m also unimpressed by his unfathomable view that post-coital showering is adequate protection against HIV, while the allegations of rape and corruption (he was acquitted) make me distinctly uneasy.

So God save our Queen, eh? Not a bit of it. Because I’d rather have President Zuma as my Head of State any day. I don’t have anything personal against the old dear at Buck House (Windsor, Balmoral, Sandringham et al), and as you may have gathered, I’m not a particular fan of JZ. But you know, at least Zuma is there because he was elected. And he can be voted out too after five years, or removed mid-term, as was his predecessor. When is Liz up for reselection? And let’s not even start on her philandering, meddling, barm-pot of an eldest son. King Charles? You’ve got to be kidding.

What is it with us Brits that in the 21st century there is such collective tolerance of democratic serfdom? We can vote only for our MP, our MEP and our local councillor and we have no say at all in our Head of State.

So next time someone like President Zuma pops across for a bit of a nosh and a chinwag with Liz or one of her chinless progeny, bear in mind that, unlike her, he is in his position legitimately, as a result of millions of votes.

May I have my own vote now, please?

A neverendum of referendum

Parliament will today debate Gordon Brown’s proposals to hold a referendum on voting reform. In 1975, Callaghan described the referendum on EEC membership as a “rubber life raft into which the whole party would have to climb”. Perhaps Gordon Brown thinks that he can craft his own lifeboat with electoral reform, reviving his chances at the polls.

But is it good use of parliamentary time? Other legislation currently going through Parliament may be sacrificed for it, yet ask the average voter about voting reform and he/she will probably conclude (unfairly) that it doesn’t matter how we elect them, they’ll all be on the make anyway.

Whenever a referendum is suggested, I am baffled. Election turnouts are depressingly low. Why demonstrate further the disengagement of the electorate by asking them to vote on something they either don’t understand to a level of detail that enables informed choices or, more likely, don’t care about?

In this case, I suppose it’s about demonstrating democracy. Giving the people the chance to vote on how they can vote. A democratic double whammy!

Faced with this democratic gambit, David Cameron has responded with… er, petitions. The Conservative leader has said that under a Tory government, any petition signed by more than 100,000 people would guarantee a debate in the House of Commons. One million or more signatures would win you the right to put a Bill before Parliament. UKIP must be licking their lips.

I fear that the idea may have been prompted by Facebook groups (“If 100,000 people join my group MPs must decide who is hotter: Kylie or Danni”*). Petitions will simply encourage further trivialisation of politics and waste even more parliamentary time.

We have a parliamentary system quite capable of delivering good government. What we lack is the public’s trust in that system or in politicians. Cheap imitations of democracy won’t change that and, worse still, is a waste of our time and of Parliament’s time.

* The answer is Kylie.

The internet: a Nobel cause..?

The internet has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yes, the internet – an inanimate object. Last year, the winner essentially won it for being elected President of the US, not a public office naturally linked with peace, although often accused of being occupied by an inanimate object.

Forgetting the possible damage to the prestige of the prize itself, one has to question whether the concept of peace is being properly applied. The nomination was submitted by Wired Italy magazine, which claimed that the internet can “destroy hate and conflict and propagate peace and democracy.” They clearly haven’t visited the BNP site but nevertheless, I agree.

I love the internet. It empowers hundreds of millions of people to communicate instantly on a global scale, dissipating information (some of it even accurate) in seconds. It brought us email, sit-down shopping and has opened up a whole new world of gentlemanly pursuits. It made possible the Altitude blog and elevated Paris Hilton from obscurity to global embarrassment. OK, so it’s not perfect.

But that’s just half the story. It can also be divisive if its benefits are not shared. The European Commission has likened the internet’s impact upon industry with that of the railways. Many consider that an understatement; the proliferation of and access to the internet are far speedier than could be said of the railways, impacting upon people’s lives at a faster rate. Advances in its technologies are also more rapid, with 4th generation Wi-Fi already developed that can download a feature film to your computer in seconds.

But as the technology races forward, the gap between the benefits of the “haves” and the opportunities denied the “have-nots” widens. This is not just a global matter: Bulgaria and Cyprus already lag so far behind the rest of the EU in broadband access and subsequent economic and social exclusion that the EU risks nurturing a significant gap between members states. (Thankfully, Altitude is involved in a project that would bring Cyprus to the top of the broadband league table, so we’re pulling our weight here!)

Globally, the consequences are far more acute. As long ago as 2000, the World Health Organisation described the current divide as “more dramatic than any other inequality in health or income.” While there may be more people accessing the internet in 2010, the majority of that growth has been in developed countries and the capabilities available via the internet are far more advanced in the developed world than they were at the start of the century.

The technological divide is not just an economic one. It’s no surprise that China struggles to balance its economic ambitions with the way it governs. Technology – or rather the denial of access to it – can have significant consequences in democratic terms.

As this particular type of economic and democratic inequality grows, the countries that are struggling to compete, or even join the game, will be more marginalised, divided and poor as a result. History suggests that as inequality increases, so does the potential for conflict.

The internet is a valuable tool for progress and its potential for helping poorer countries to develop and prosper is enormous. But until the international community acts in order for that to happen, it can have no claim to a Nobel Peace Prize.

Incidentally, other nominees include the human rights campaigners Liu Xiaobo and Svetlana Gannushkina. If you aren’t aware of their incredible efforts to improve the lives of people in China and Russia respectively, it’s easy to find out more – look them up on the internet.