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Who Needs Democracy When You’ve Got Money?

As the networks of corporate influence have incessantly increased in Scotland, the blurring and merger of commercial and political interests have followed. A network of civil servants, lobbyists, think tanks, political groups and the media are now taking the lead in setting the public agenda. In private. This article is from the new issue of Scottish Left Review which is online now. 

Lobbying has been much in the news of late. There have been several exposès of what Cameron in opposition described as “the next big scandal” facing the political class, involving private dinners for party donors at No 10, unofficial advisors acting as a lobbying conduits in the case of Adam Werrity, and lobbying consultants with strong Tory connections trading in privileged access to government. Anyone following the Leveson Inquiry closely will have noticed many revealing insights into how influence works in both public and private in British politics, comprising the close contact between News International’s executives and in-house lobbyists and government (notably No 10 and DCMS), to the offers of tactical support from News International’s friends in Government (in both London and Edinburgh) in return for practical support from News International’s publications for the politicians and parties concerned. While the News International case is exceptional in the sense that it is also very much a story about the media and has a high public profile, it is at the same time quite typical of how governments routinely interact with big business. As Leveson grapples with the challenge of securing media freedom and rebuilding trust in the media-politics nexus it is perhaps worth thinking too about how trust and accountability in lobbying-politics nexus can be developed.

For many democrats the hallmark of a pluralistic political system is the ability of various social groups to participate in policy making and influence legislation. The health and vibrancy of a political culture can be understood not simply in the competition between political parties for power, but in the interaction between parties and wider civil society. Issues and causes can be brought into the political arena by campaigns and coalitions who organise and mobilise to have their concerns recognised and acted upon by decision makers. The absence (or even suppression) of such dialogue and exchange is symptomatic of closed political systems and failed states. While many can agree on the principle of rights to participation and petition, the realisation of such ideals in practice is much more problematic than many liberals care to admit.

It is useful to conceive of lobbying quite broadly as strategy and action intended to influence decision-making. One reason to think this way is that this is exactly how many lobbyists see the challenge of getting their preferences adopted in policy or enacted in legislation or regulation. The testimony and documents disclosed at Leveson regarding NI’s efforts to take over BSkyB show this very clearly. An irony of this saga is that the power of NI through its ownership of partisan newspapers gave the bid for BSkyB a visibility that made it difficult to accomplish politically. Hence Jeremy Hunt’s remark to NI lobbyist Frederic Michels on the need to build “political cover” for his decision-making.

Another important distinction to make when thinking about lobbying is differentiating between specific interest lobbying and class-wide lobbying. The former is the kind of direct lobbying for individual commercial advantage as practiced by NI in pursuit of its interest in BSkyB. Class-wide lobbying tends to be undertaken by leading peak business organisations like the CBI or the IoD, and in the Scottish case organisations like SCDI and other prominent trade associations. Class-wide lobbying is aimed at influencing the general direction of travel for public policy, for example increasing competitiveness, or embedding ‘sustainability’ as a core policy driver for development. It is the battle for ideas and ideology rather than seeking direct benefits or subsidies. This kind of lobbying creates a climate for investment and sets the conditions under which individual companies and organisations undertake their own direct lobbying. So, to use the NI example again, the overarching policy goal of the government is to deliver a world-class knowledge economy, of which the media is one part. In this context the government seek to ensure that the media sector is competitive (again, echoing the agenda of business lobbying more generally) while protecting the pluralism of the UK media system. News International, and indeed the media lobbies which opposed their takeover of BSkyB, conducted their lobbying with a heavy focus on these issues. The fact that there were organised interests and groups which opposed the Murdoch takeover of BSkyB is seen by many to show that lobbying is essentially democratic and pluralist. However, more careful critics have noted that the competition for political favour of one commercial interest pitted against other commercial interests is simply not the same as having organised public interests participating in policy debate, articulating non-commercial arguments. The relative weakness or absence of organised public interests is perhaps one of the major structural problems in terms of lobbying in advanced liberal democracies. For instance in the on-going debate over financial regulation in the wake of the banking crash, the battalions of lobbyists working for banks and financial services far outnumber those representing ‘consumer’ interests.

It is quite clear that lobbying involves much more than simply making representations to elected representatives. Preserving the sacrosanct relationship between MP/MSP and constituent is often seen as emblematic of all that is good in our representative democracy. Business lobbyists like to suggest their access to politicians is simply another expression of this basic democratic right, equating the petitioning by an individual or concern citizen as analogous to the systematic and coordinated targeting of resources and political intelligence by transnational corporations on the political decision making apparatus. Moreover, translating access into influence is a key task for professional lobbyists. Contemporary lobbying does not simply seek to address elected representatives. Very often the targets are ministers, their advisors, senior civil servants, regulators and other opinion formers (for example in the media, key bloggers) and experts (in academia, think tanks etc). It is widely recognised that Parliament is no longer the centre of political power and action, and lobbying has therefore quickly adapted to this reality.

So, where then does lobbying take place, who is involved, and what do they actually do? Lobbying is often shrouded in secrecy, and those involved would generally like to keep it that way. By and large lobbying is a corporate activity. While many charities and NGOs lobby it is quite clear that the lobbying resources of business dwarf those available to other sectors of society.

Corporate and commercial lobbyists have the capacity, expertise and interest to intervene in policy debates. They are often invited to sit on various task-forces and quasi-official bodies and agencies. They routinely respond to government consultations on matters that may affect their interests. Corporations are now partners to government in the planning of public policy and the delivery of public services. Business lobbyists are regularly to be found at events and fora where they can be in contact with politicians and decision makers. This includes participating in parliamentary cross-party groups on specific policy issues (where they sponsor events, and sometimes provide the support to run the groups), attending party conferences and sponsoring fringe seminars or research on a topic related to their interests. This is where think tanks fit into the lobbying picture. As Patricia Hewitt (now an advisor to Alliance Boots, BT and private equity firm Cinven) admitted to an undercover reporter for Dispatches just before the 2010 general election “the think tank and seminar route is a very good one [for lobbying]… Can we invite Minister X to give a seminar on this subject? Your client would then sponsor the seminar and you do it through the think tank. And that’s very useful, because what you get for your sponsorship is basically you sit next to the minister”. Thus seemingly independent debate, research and analysis has its origins in the strategy of corporate lobbyists to influence the climate of opinion on a particular issue. Such dialogue and research can then be used by lobbyists as ‘evidence’ for particular policy ideas they are interested in promoting. Through sponsorship (of seminars, debates, awards ceremonies, and the like, as well as corporate hospitality at sporting and cultural events) lobbyists meet ministers and their advisors. This is a form of privileged access in the sense that non-commercial organisations usually don’t have the budgets to devote to such political courtship. It should also alert us to the social side of lobbying – it is a contact sport and considerable time and effort is devoted to building relationships with key political influentials.

On the Scottish scene there are currently over 80 cross party groups in Holyrood. There are also the regular policy seminars, breakfast briefings, dinners, awards ceremonies run by organisations like SCDI, IoD, CBI Scotland, the Law Society, Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the David Hume Institute, Holyrood magazine, Demos Scotland, etc. On top of this there are numerous receptions in the Garden Lobby at Holyrood and other hotels and conference centres across the city. You quickly see how space is opened up for constant contact between decision-makers and outside interests.

Added to the dense and overlapping social and professional networks among the political class in Scotland is the phenomena of the revolving door, where individuals move in and out of government to work in the private sector, often on the same policy issues where they once held some public trust or responsibility. The offer, or expectation of an offer, of future employment can have a powerful impact on how civil servants and regulators discharge their duties. As Jack Abramoff – the convicted and disgraced Republican lobbyist in the US – observed, from the moment a potential job offer is mooted: “we owned them. And what does that mean? Every request from our office, every request of our clients, everything that we want, they’re gonna do. And not only that, they’re gonna think of things we can’t think of to do!”

Such networks and revolving doors exist in Scotland. People routinely move between party politics, lobbying, public relations and media. The careers of political insiders easily straddle public and private sectors as the vagaries of elections mean that many elected representatives, perhaps in marginal constituencies, inevitably have one eye on what they might do next. As will their staff. The contacts and know-how of senior insiders are marketable commodities in the world of commercial lobbying.

In Scotland the business of lobbying expanded massively with the advent of devolution. While some public figures mocked the ‘pretendy’ Parliament lobbying consultancies set up offices before the first Holyrood elections, and large corporations began to invest in their public affairs capacity. These were strategic investments designed to ensure that interests could be represented to this new decision-making body. Despite some early concerns about lobbying sleaze at Holyrood the lobbying industry has consolidated its position in Scottish public life, free from any meaningful obligation for transparency and accountability. The Association for Scottish Public Affairs (ASPA) now boasts some 50 members, including consultancies and law firms, offering lobbying services to those who can pay. In addition, in-house lobbyists for industries from oil to renewables, alcohol to water, pharmaceuticals to farming, are all well established players on the Edinburgh scene. Another significant player in lobbying in Scotland is the voluntary and charitable sector, many of whom are as well networked as their corporate counterparts.

All the interactions between outside interests and elected representatives is part and parcel of contemporary democracy. A necessary element to ensuring such contacts are legitimate is for those involved to be held accountable. It is very difficult to see how lobbying can be accountable without proper transparency (i.e. a serious disclosure regime where the public can see who is trying to shape policy, what resources and communication strategies are used etc.). The evidence to the Leveson inquiry is a sobering reminder of the nature, scope and scale of lobbying, and that this form of politics routinely avoids scrutiny and is thereby unaccountable. The mooted private member’s bill on lobbying at Holyrood is to be welcomed if it promotes transparency and accountability. Without such the public will effectively be in the dark about how policy making is shaped in Scotland, which may suit some lobbyists but is unlikely to serve the wider public interest.

Will Dinan