The finest democracy money can buy: in defence of lobbyists.

Everyone knows who  lobbyists are.  They’re the mouthpieces of shadowy, wealthy businessmen prepared to pay for access to Ministers so that they can influence defence contracts, divert spending on major infrastructure projects, and make junk food an acceptable part of health policy.  They’re Nick Naylor in Thank You For Smoking,  described (not entirely un-admiringly) as : pimp, profiteer … yuppie Mephistopheles.

Of course the  email campaigners and dogged defenders of the NHS, 38 Degrees, are also lobbyists.  So are the policy directors of the NSPCC, the National Trust and  the Child Poverty Action Group.  So’s Jamie Oliver.  Anyone who works to influence government policy is a lobbyist, even if that’s not what’s written on their business card.

I’d far rather policy was made in open debate with business, the voluntary sector, interested experts and concerned members of the public than not.  Access to Ministers is not, of itself, a bad thing – though it’s interesting that no-one seems to expect Ministers to be able to resist the lure of the lobbyists’ lolly while they’re making up their minds up.

While I completely agree that the people with the deepest pockets shouldn’t be able to buy a say in policy-making, I think it’s naive to assume that the current solution – a register of lobbyists  – would improve the situation.  Who’s to be listed? By whom? How’s the register to be kept? Updated? Administered? What would constitute an abuse of the system?  What sanctions will there be against abuse?  How will they be enforced? By whom?  Despite promising to be the most transparent government ever, the current administration seems to have difficulty reporting on the meetings it’s having now, I somehow don’t see a new register of meetings with lobby groups getting us very far.  I also don’t see how a curb on lobbying could have prevented the Fox/Werritty saga which seems to me to be more about an extraordinary sense of personal entitlement,  hubris and complete disdain for a devalued civil service.

During the recent party conference season, a great deal was made of how expensive it is to attend conference these days – more than £700 to mix with the Tories in Manchester, apparently.  Ordinary members are frozen out and the only delegates are professional lobbyists of one sort or another.  Michael Crick did much eye-rolling on Channel 4 news at the discovery that some lobbyists were actually paying  £800 to attend policy sessions with the party hierarchy.  His (presumably synthetic) astonishment was dismissed by the redoubtable Olly Grender who pointed out that political parties have few other means of funding their activities and that conference is generally a commercial opportunity for them.  If we’re serious about reducing the influence of murky money in the political process, it might be an idea to start looking seriously at the issue of party funding, as she suggested.  Much harder than just listing lobbyists, of course.  And suggesting that more cash should be diverted towards MPs at a time when funds are being withdrawn from social services would be electorally suicidal.  But it might help avoid headlines like this:  Andrew Lansley bankrolled by private healthcare provider – originally written when the Tories were still in opposition, but which re-emerged on Twitter yesterday as part of the campaign against his NHS reforms.


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