Categories: Political spin
21 August 2013
UK PR trade bodies all at sea over lobby Bill
The Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill is soon to be debated in the UK’s houses of parliament. I am with Lord Bell in hating this proposal. But what foxes me is the way my great industry is so Guardianista. My every instinct tells me that this is a sophisticated case of shooting, or at least chaining, the messenger.
The Bill seeks to ally fears about allegedly corrupt peers and MPs “exposed” by the media dabbling in lobbying for cash (accusations that mostly did not withstand scrutiny). It is supposed to reassure the public about the roles of people such as Lord Ashcroft in the Tory Party, and institutions such as trade unions in the Labour Party, when it comes to financing them and influencing their policies.
The Bill’s supporters claim it will make transparent the (undeniably fuzzy) activities of special political advisers-cum-lobbyists for big business such as Lynton Crosby. Yet this personalises and misconstrues the problem. Crosby-type multiple-cross-purpose consultants exist to fill the gaps created by the dramatic decline of the once mighty civil service. That’s another problem altogether.
The problem with this Bill can be partly fathomed from its cumbersome title. It encompasses things which are really separate issues: union, charity, single-issue, individual, business and political lobbying and influence. In the process, the Bill muddles its role just as surely as MPs, lobbyists, business, trade unions and NGOs, sometimes confuse and mismanage theirs.
What I’m advocating is that anybody who supports freedom of expression and association should endorse the views put on BBC Newsnight by Lord Tim Bell and the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith. Bell said no new laws were required to restrict and register lobbying and lobbyists. He mounted a robust defence of the lobbying and PR industry. He defended everybody’s right to organise and seek to influence others, including politicians, in a democratic society. Goldsmith said MPs exist to be lobbied. (See video below.)
But according to the prime minister’s spokesman the Bill is:
…about ensuring that we know who lobbyists lobby for, how much money is spent on third-party political campaigning and to make sure trade unions know who their members are. [Lobbying law ‘would outlaw TUC conference’, BBConline 19 August 2013]
The government has also reassured people that:
This bill does not include campaigning by third parties – charities or other organisations – that are not intended to promote the electoral success of any particular party. So a third party campaigning only on policy issues would be exempt. [ibid]
The Bill’s exceptions and limitations have angered the PR industry; at least the PC, wannabe PR professional bodies. Weirdly, the squeaky-clean Guardianista flaks don’t think the proposed statutory controls are strict and comprehensive enough. So important chunks of our industry have criticised the government for its “incredibly narrow focus”.
Three leading PR industry bodies, Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC), and Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), have joined forces to lobby on the matter. They have proposed a definition of lobbying that encompasses all “services” carried out in the course of a business for the purpose of (a) influencing government, or (b) advising others how to influence government.
They are now trying to persuade (ok, and oops, lobby) the government to register more lobbyists than just professional full-time ones working for dedicated lobby bodies on behalf of clients. Instead, they urge it to order the registration of “everyone who seeks to influence public policy and law, with a number of common sense exceptions”.
As to their commonsense exceptions, they say the register shouldn’t cover journalists who publish information in the course of their profession. The three PR trade bodies also want to protect the relationship between MPs and their constituents. But these exceptions make no sense.
Displaying a surprising naivety about the real world, the PR trade bodies claim “there is a [fundamental] difference between the intention of journalism and the intention of lobbying”. But the fourth estate is the mouthpiece of all lobbyists and the biggest and most influential political lobbyist of all. The media are mostly backed financially by big business, trade unions and other interest groups (lobbies) of all sorts on the left and right of politics.
Most people only visit or speak to their MPs when they want to lobby them. Who is to decide when constituents are acting for “others” or “merely” for themselves or for a mixture of both? That’s a public and private legal minefield. That’s not least because PRCA, APPC and CIPR want to include on the statutory register freelance lobbyists carrying out work pro bono as well as people who may donate or volunteer their time to charities or causes.
Like too many recent government proposals, this one looks like half-baked kite-flying being fanned and made worse by the commentariat. Like too much of the media-clean-up, it looks like making bad new laws instead of enforcing old ones and defending basic freedoms.
We shouldn’t give a damn about the lobbying industry. Let it be funded by the devil himself, and covertly if that’s what His Satanic Majesty fancies. All that matters is that politicians grow a couple. What messages, and through what messengers, politicians hear about the world is of no importance. It is what our representatives make of what they hear that matters.
As for the rest of us, we should be free to pressurize our politicians and say what we want about what they do and say, whenever we want, without putting our names on a register of lobbyists. Most of all, we should remain free to sweep our politicians aside if need be.
Paul – apologies as I’ve been meaning to comment on your post. I feel very ‘yes, but; no, but’ over all the various aspects of the debate to be honest.
I tend to agree that trying to include everyone or anyone who has contact with a politician in any list of lobbyists is unfeasible, but I also question the value of any selective list. Indeed, the purpose of a list is a little beyond me – seems just to be seen to do something as we know there will be subsequent issues that call it into question.
For me the real question is why everyone is so ignorant and uninterested in the entire process of engaging with those who are supposed to represent us and take decisions regarding the governance of the country. That is, our local MPs and elected government. This seems to apply to the vast majority of PR practitioners, let alone members of the general public, and indeed, most businesses and organisations.
We should all (individuals, gatekeepers and organisations) be seeking to have more contact with the political process, not restricting this even further.
As you say, the real call ought to be for more robust politicians who are not felt to be so pathetic that they can be bought for a few pounds or a nice dinner or travel jolly. It is their ethics that are at the heart of the issue.
One thing I’d like to see published is the decision-making process involved in proposed laws and major projects. This should include details of sources and contact that helped inform the conclusions and recommendations being made. This is standard research practice, so why not apply it to the political process. The bibliography and record of discussions (formal and informal) should be available for public (and media) scrutiny on an ongoing basis and most importantly when the public and parliamentarians are expected to provide their support.
So rather than seeing each and every contact with the lobbying industry as something to be monitored and viewed suspiciously, let’s focus on the outcome of such engagement and indeed, every other input into the process.
If the industry has provided information, let that be public – along with insight and data from anyone else who has an interest in the matter of debate.
I don’t care who knows who, whether they are related, went to school together or so on – unless that is has been influential in political decisions that are made. Let’s be more evidence-based where it really matters rather than casting aspersions around every meeting or other contact point.
Your remarks are welcome and useful.
In particular, you make the point well that the Bill and the thinking behind it would undermine trust rather than build it because it treats all meetings, discussions and relationships with suspicion. If enacted, the Bill would institutionalize politics (more than it is already) as a spectator sport played by “others”; characterized by the disengagement of most people from the process itself. Indeed, the modern obsession with process, channels and transparency accentuates the decline in interest in the content of discussion and decision making.