Monday, 17 October 2011

You might as well try to train the rainstorm - thoughts on lobbying

OK so, following the latest example of how “lobbyists” capture ministers, the chatterati’s latest idea is to do something about that lobbying:

Labour's shadow cabinet office minister Gareth Thomas said: "David Cameron has still not introduced the compulsory register of lobbyists he promised.

"In the wake of the Adam Werritty and Atlantic Bridge activities it is now essential we have greater transparency.

"The government should bring forward as a matter of urgency plans for a compulsory register of lobbyists with records being kept of meetings between lobbyists and ministers."

And everyone nods sagely, the government promise to ‘consider’ such a register and the chitter-chatter of political aficionados gently shifts into a purring sound as everyone agrees with everyone else about the need to control lobbying.

What nobody asks however – not a soul – is what exactly we mean by the term “lobbyist”? Do we just mean that relatively small group of people who earn a living brokering access to decision-makers on behalf of fee-paying clients? Or do we need to encompass a far broader group including all those in-house public affairs teams, for example?

Or should we just give up. After all, seeking to control to exploiting of access to decision-makers in a modern democracy where over half of all the money earned is spent by the government is a tougher task that herding recalcitrant felines – more akin to training the rainstorm.

Regardless of the number of registers, licences and other bureaucratic controls, the lobbying of decision-makers will continue, access will be brokered for favours and, in each season, some scandal or other will rear its head – occasionally ending in a resignation or other such juicy delight.

The truth of the matter is that is suits large organisations - whether business, charity, trade union or industrial association - to invest their marketing pounds in influencing the decisions of government. There is no doubt that such a strategy deliver a far better return for shareholders, trustees and members than does the more orthodox search for advantage through persuasion.

We may get a register of lobbyists and lobby organisations – it may help a little. But let’s not kid ourselves that the hydra of political favour broking will die – the lobby will reform, grow new heads, adopt a different name and find different ways to inveigle its way into the heart of the political system.


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