Tag Archives: lobbying

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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Do me a favour, don’t do me a favour

Just days before the latest lobbying scandal that didn’t involve lobbyists broke, the Financial Times, expressed concern about the so-called revolving door through which civil servants and ministers pass to join companies as lobbyists. The drift of it’s columnist, John Gapper, was that we should be worried that decisions could thus, be made on the basis of favours.

We should certainly concern ourselves with how government decisions are made, but as I argued in a letter to the FT earlier this week; if you want to influence government effectively, there is no substitute for having a credible, well-argued and factually-based proposal.

In case you missed it, here is the text of my letter:

Sir, I dont doubt that former civil servants, ex-ministers, or even the occasional former prime minister can help businesses to influence government policy (We should worry about the revolving door for jobs, Comment, May 30). However, regardless of the status of such advisers, government policy is not decided on the basis of special favours. If government policy or procurement decisions cannot be justified on policy or financial grounds, or for meeting stated political objectives, then the dispensers of these favours would very quickly be found out.

John Gappers lobbyist informant is perfectly correct; large businesses do not need favours, as they will be listened to anyway. I was a special adviser for seven years, and I would never have risked my position by giving out favours to anyone.

Any business, large or small, that wants to influence government decisions will find that there is no substitute for having a credible, well-argued and factually-based proposal. There is no mystery or black arts involved. Advisers add value by helping businesses to articulate their case clearly and effectively. If they do that, then there is no need for favours.

In other words: “Do me a favour; don’t do me a favour”.

Lobbyists: how to lose friends and alienate people

When Altitude was being formed as a company and we were discussing a name for the company, I jokingly suggested that we call ourselves Bill Pottinger, so that we might accidentally be invited to tender for work. Had we gone down that route, perhaps the public affairs industry would have been spared the embarrassment poured upon it by the ‘sting’ that takes up the first seven pages of today’s Independent.

Under-cover journalists from something called the ‘Bureau of Investigative Journalism’ invited ten London firms (not including Altitude) to pitch to a (fictitious) Uzbek organisation to promote its supposed interests. And, according to today’s report, Bell Pottinger employees made some rather staggering – and rather foolish – claims pertaining to their personal influence over members of the Government and Downing Street staff.

A few points immediately spring to mind…

1. After so many attempts by the press to dirty the reputation of lobbying, they seem finally to have succeeded in including some actual lobbyists in the story. Not fictitious ones acted by journalists to catch out politicians, nor businessmen with an interest in swaying political decisions but with nothing to do with the public affairs industry. No, this time they have actually caught out some real lobbyists. Well done the Independent – you’re the first paper to at least identify some lobbyists!

2. Let’s just re-read part of that story. Ten firms were approached for the fictitious work for the fictitious Uzbeks. Of those, two refused the work and three didn’t respond. Of the other four firms, there is no mention. Could it be that they – whisper it – acted ethically? Given the apparently scurrilous nature of the entire public affairs world, surely this is the newsworthy element!

3. And while I’m on that subject: I’ve written here before about how journalists are desperate to find a group in society on which to shift the focus of public disgust from the press itself. Yesterday, the Independent gave a curiously large amount of space to the establishment of The Journalism Foundation. The paper’s editor, Simon Kelner wrote:

“Journalism itself has had a bad press recently: here is a positive initiative that seeks to redress the balance and, whatever you may think when following the latest developments from the Leveson Inquiry, it’s in all our interests that, if nothing else, we keep monitoring those centres of power.”

Quite right too, Simon. Mud has been thrown and it has stuck, even on the holier-than-thou Indy, whose owner and financial backer, we discover in Kelner’s last paragraph (by which most people have stopped reading), are the founders of the Journalism Foundation.

Lo and behold, the day after the fanfare about this cuddly new Foundation – a new knight in shining armour to salvage the reputation of the press – we have an attempt to demonise the public affairs industry. Which compels me to quote Kelner again:

“…this skulduggery was practised only by a small minority, and one of the prices to be paid for having our vibrant and diverse press is occasional unruliness born of competition.”

He is referring, of course, to the press, not to the public affairs industry, which his newspaper today smeared with one broad brush. That’s a smart line in hypocrisy.

4. Some people – especially some of those who have worked within the circles of power but then faded away and perhaps feel resentment – really cannot help but boast in order to make themselves feel better about themselves. It happened before and it will happen again – it’s the frailty of the human ego. That doesn’t make the claims true.

5. The vast majority of the public affairs industry – represented in this instance by the unidentified firms that did NOT want to work for the shady outfit cobbled together for the Indy’s sting – whether members of industry associations or not, have long called for a regulatory code. This is because they have nothing to hide and want their industry respected for the legitimate role it plays in informing government policy.

It will be interesting to see how this story plays out. By 8.15am today, Twitter was flushed with comments on why this story wasn’t gaining more coverage on the BBC. I’m starting to hope that it escalates and is addressed at the highest levels because now that actual lobbyists are involved, it cannot be ignored.

Previously, I’ve defended my industry in the belief, gained through more than a decade’s experience in it, that the many, many people I’ve worked with are representative of the industry as a whole: honest, decent people who are open in their methods and who help their clients to open doors with their messages and arguments rather than their black books. Regretfully, I was wrong.

Let’s have a proper review of the industry, looking at how the bad apples may have smeared the reputation of the rest of public affairs (if, indeed, any actual wrong-doing took place). Without such a review or inquiry, it seems that the industry is destined to death by a thousand cuts, mainly inflicted by journalists trying to lift themselves from the bottom rung of the public’s ladder of disdain.

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.