Lobbying: A Ticking Timebomb? as Liam Fox's Career Hangs by a Thread, Richard Godwin Examines How Corporations and Interest Groups Try to Influence Government

The Evening Standard (London, England), October 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

Lobbying: A Ticking Timebomb? as Liam Fox's Career Hangs by a Thread, Richard Godwin Examines How Corporations and Interest Groups Try to Influence Government


Byline: Richard Godwin

IN FEBRUARY last year, David Cameron gave a speech in which he warned of the next scandal likely to hit Britain. It would centre on what he referred to as "secret corporate lobbying".

The practice of corporations influencing politicians behind closed doors "has tainted our politics for too long", he told an audience at the University of East London. "We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism."

Connoisseurs of irony will enjoy reheating Cameron's words this week. His Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, is facing questions over his relationship with his "adviser", Adam Werritty, who is accused of being a paid lobbyist. The intriguing affair -- the "corporate intelligence" company, the businessmen with vested foreign interests, the alleged [pounds sterling]147,000 of payment -- casts a small shaft of light into the murky world of corporate lobbying.

The lobbying industry is estimated to be worth [pounds sterling]2billion, making Britain the third-biggest market in the world after the US and the EU. It is growing, too. At the recent Tory party conference, lobbyists representing everything from health insurers to the oil producers of Azerbaijan outnumbered ordinary delegates by nearly two to one. "The lobbyists are on their way to destroying conference ... they take over fringe events, prevent open debate and push, push, push the line their employers pay them to articulate," complained Graeme Archer, a party activist.

But perhaps Cameron's biggest assumption was that "we all know how it works". As an ex-public relations man, he does. So does Nick Clegg, a former Brussels lobbyist. But most voters have little clue what influence these paid representatives have on our politicians. As Tamasin Cave of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency tells me, if we did, it would "change the debate" completely.

Of course, on one level, lobbying is normal. If you email your MP about bins, you are lobbying them. Trade unions, NGOs and charities lobby a lot. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is notoriously good at it. "It ought to be a completely legitimate part of the democratic process," says Douglas Carswell, a backbench Conservative MP who is calling for greater transparency. "It's corporate lobbying, when there's an unaccountable concentration of power and a little network that can't be seen by the voter -- that's when the problem occurs ... it explains why people vote for change and don't always get it."

That usually happens when there are large sums of money involved. When the Government is taking a decision on placing wind turbines, changing the rules on smoking or drinking, building a third runway at Heathrow, or privatising the NHS, lobbyists won't be far away. As Carswell says, "If you're centre-Left or centre-Right or centre-nothing, why is our democracy being bought by corporate interests? It's wrong."

So how does it work? Theoretically, a lobbyist is as good as his arguments and his contacts book. He might persuade a sympathetic MP to raise questions in Parliament by presenting them with fresh evidence. He might try to influence civil servants directly, orchestrating meetings and organising events. He might run to fake letter-writing campaigns and infiltrating supposedly non-partisan think-tanks. It is all about "filling the information environment" to influence decision-makers.

The system is further complicated by something known in the trade as the "revolving door" -- the mysterious portal through which people move between the Government and the commercial sector. To take a random example, George Bridges, the former campaign director for the Conservatives and one of Mr Cameron's close allies, now heads Quiller Consultants, a "strategic communications" firm. …

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