Benign in theory - but in practice, money talks
In the lead up to the 2010 general election, David Cameron made a pitch to the electorate that spoke directly to voter frustration with our broken political system. Lobbying, he said, specifically “secret corporate lobbying.... goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics”.
He spoke of our “fears and suspicions” about how our system works, with “money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest”. “We all know how it works,” he confidently assumed.
But do we? Lobbyists, the paid persuaders whose job it is to influence the decisions of government, typically stay out of the limelight. As one notes, “the influence of lobbyists increases when . . . it goes largely unnoticed by the public.” Lobbying is most effective when secret.
Which is why we should begin with an understanding of what it is lobbyists do, how they go about it and why.
Relationships with politicians and officials are the stock-in-trade of lobbyists. Take Google, recently in the news over its ‘mates rates’ tax deal. It has an impeccable in-house lobbying team that in recent years has included an old friend of Cameron’s, a former aide to Nick Clegg, the daughter of the PM’s neighbour and an ex-advisor to Jeremy Hunt during his stint in charge of internet regulation. These people are hired because they speak the same language as our lawmakers, know what makes them tick and, crucially, can open doors.
Politicians don’t make decisions in a vacuum though and so lobbyists also seek to shape public debates through the media. They seed it with information they want politicians to see and work hard to keep out inconvenient facts they would rather they didn’t - a skill they have also mastered online. Lobbyists also engineer support for business-friendly policies by creating or enlisting credible third parties like think tanks to act as arms-length spokespeople. The nuclear industry spreads its messages “via third party opinion because the public would be suspicious if we started ramming pro-nuclear messages down their throats,” as one nuclear lobbyist succinctly put it.
All this takes money. It is true, or partly true, that money spent on lobbying does not equate to influence - politics is not nearly that straightforward. Yet lobbying is not seen as a cost but rather an investment, one that delivers a return. Lobbying has become another way of making money, whether from heading off a threat to profits (for example, pushing back against curbs on particular products like cigarettes or alcohol) or applying pressure to open up new markets (take the recent NHS reforms). One study in the US, where data on lobbying spending is available, estimates that from an annual corporate lobbying spend of roughly $3.5bn, the value of the resulting corporate subsidies alone is about $90bn a year.
This goes a long way to explaining why lobbying is dominated by corporate interests. It is certainly true that others also make an investment in lobbying – trade unions and charities, for instance – yet their influence is often limited. There has been, for instance, no equal or equivalent counter to the UK’s powerful bank lobby either before or since the financial crisis.
So, when David Cameron described for voters how lobbying works: “the lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear,” he was giving us the abridged version.
The result of all this activity – lobbying is an estimated £2bn industry in the UK – is that commercial lobbyists acting for particular, narrow interests have bent our system of government to their will to such an extent that that arguably it no longer serves the interests of the wider public.
In theory, lobbying is benign. It leads to better government. It gives people a voice. And, in a liberal democracy, everyone rightly has the ability to lobby their representatives. The problem lies in what happens in practice.