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Ain’t no party like a lobbying party

Written by Alice McCool on Sunday, 6 July 2014

Several incidents in the past week demonstrate the problems that UK politics has with lobbying, conflicts of interest and the revolving door. What will it take for the UK’s political class to reform?

Labour’s Alun Davies asking Natural Resources Wales to support plans for a racing circuit in his constituency. Tony Blair’s decision to advise the Egyptian Government. Unanswered questions following the phone hacking verdicts. The Conservative summer fundraising party.

Q: What do all of these have in common?

A: They’ve all been in the news over the last week – and all relate in some way to the issues of lobbying conflict of interest and the ‘revolving door’.

Depressing. It is weeks like this that make me feel like throwing the towel in and joining Russell Brand’s revolution.

I understand that in a liberal democracy a wide range of interest groups need to be able to express their views on what shape policy should take and to influence by convincing politicians of the merits of their position. It is called lobbying.

But what will it take for the UK’s political class to wake up to the damaging effects such lobbying can have when it is poorly regulated and untransparent? If they are not convinced by the usual (and reasonable) argument that it damages democracy as the rich and powerful gain disproportionate and distorting levels of influence; how are they not at least won over by the erosion of public trust argument?

A recent opinion poll by Transparency International suggested 90 per cent of UK respondents believe our Government is run by a few big entities acting in their own interest. I hope that this isn’t a reality – after all those in Government who really are acting in the interest of the electorate don’t make the headlines – but with the string of scandals in recent years, you can see where the crisis in confidence has come from. To take one example from the list above – the Conservative party’s fundraising.

The Prime Minister was clearly conscious of the potential for bad press when he made the Conservative summer fundraising party on Wednesday a little more modest than usual by banning champagne and black tie attire. But the event was nevertheless characterised by a distinct lack of transparency.

The Conservative hierarchy are however under pressure to publish the guest list following the leakage of last year’s to the Bureau of Investigative Journalists and The Guardian revealing some questionable attendees. Among a number of rich foreigners and high profile PR specialists attending the 2013 event was a peer whose PR firm represents the government of Bahrain – and who hosted defence secretary Philip Hammond on his table. What did they speak about? How significant is the relationship they built or reinforced? Of course, we do not know, and this demonstrates how hard lobbying is to regulate.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported:

“Together with the oil-traders and oligarchs, bankers, luxury property developers socialites and tycoons, there were those who exist to serve them: a couture dressmaker, haute jewellers, wealth managers aplenty, interior designers, hoteliers, a lawyer who specialises in helping the foreign super-rich emigrate to Britain, and numerous lobbyists and ‘reputation management’ consultants.”

This highlights several different kinds of corruption risk TI-UK is fighting against; not only lobbying and political party funding, but also possibly the UK’s role in laundering the money and reputations of corrupt politicians and resources-resources-business people from overseas.

Political party fundraising events such as these suggest that UK politicians fail to see the risks of close relationships with lobbyists (in particular lobbyists representing wealthy paymasters). Or it may be that they need the money so badly to get re-elected that they ignore the obvious risks. Our research has shown they are not able to maintain the safeguards that are essential to ensuring integrity. Recent history has taught us that politicians appear far too willing to accept high-level hospitality from those seeking to influence them refusing to acknowledge that, even if they are not engaged in anything untoward, such behaviour fails to meet the ‘appearance standard’ and thus erodes public trust.

It is worth noting that it is not just the Conservative Party who are the culprits; the list of news stories at the beginning of this post indicts Labour politicians too – and on the lobbyist side, the media. Indeed, Ed Miliband is set to host a Labour fundraiser at which ‘premium’ tables will cost £15000 each. And it’s not just the UK, either. To quote The Guardian:

‘The danger of a lack of transparency in fundraising is written in corruption allegations across contemporary Europe a shameful cavalcade that may soon be joined by Nicolas Sarkozy’. 

TI’s research supports this – a 2012 analysis of corruption risks in 25 European countries found that lobbying remains veiled in secrecy skewing decision making that benefits the few at the expense of the many. The fact that the UK is one of only six of the 25 countries assessed which regulates lobbying to any degree is an indication of the scale of this problem – because our legislation is clearly not fit for purpose.

The Lobbying Act passed in January of this year is widely believed to be a shambles with even lobbyists themselves admitting the legislation – which involves creating a register – will not solve the problem. TI-UK believes that lobbying cannot be regulated as a stand-alone activity because it is part of a wider web of special interest groups and individuals who manipulate politics to suit their own ends often with significant funds behind them. Reform must encapsulate Parliamentary ethics as a whole by regulating the revolving door, imposing caps on party donations and addressing the honours system – all with stronger sanctions for breaches of acceptable behaviour.

It is becoming clearer and clearer that corruption is not only a problem of lands afar. This seems to be dawning on the Government, and they are set to publish the first ever national anti-corruption plan in the next few weeks. Let’s hope it puts the issue of Parliamentary ethics high on the agenda. But while changing laws is one thing changing culture is another – and I’ve got my fingers crossed for a revolution of political ethics in our government. That way, I won’t have to join Mr Brand’s revolution after all.

On 14 October, Transparency International UK will launch new research on the corruption risks associated with lobbying in the UK. More details here


Read 12537 times Last modified on Tuesday, 24 November 2015 12:18

Alice McCool

Alice formerly worked for Transparency International UK as our Campaigns Officer. You can tweet her via @McCoolingtons.

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