Do you trust lobbyists?

lobbyOver on Tearfund’s Just Policy blog Rosanne White confesses to being a lobbyist. I particularly concur with her fears of alienation at the dinner table if the topics of religion and politics are off the agenda, because I, like her, work in both.

About 18 months ago I wrote a similar defence. I attempted the herculean task of defending lobbying as a noble profession. That was the last time a crisis erupted over claims of access for cash, shady meetings to steer government policy. Yet before the reputation of lobbyists is tarnished any more than it has already, remember the lobbyists Patrick Mercers and Lords Laird, Mackenzie and Cunningham purportedly did business with were not lobbyists at all. They were journalists pretending to be lobbyists.

The politicians under the microscope have serious charges to answer and on the prima facie evidence seem to have been willing to take money in return for parliamentary favours. That is wrong and inexcusable. But to then blame lobbyists is a bit like a journalist going under cover as a fire fighter, starting a fire and than splashing headlines about fire fighters burning down what they are paid to protect.

It also means the government’s proposed action in response is reactionary and ill thought through. A register of lobbyists will not stop MPs from behaving how Patrick Mercer is accused of, if true he is likely to have fallen foul of rules on paid advocacy and possibly also face criminal charges under bribery laws. A statutory register of lobbyists would not have stopped it and is not needed to tell us it is wrong. That’s where I disagree with Rosanne’s blog, I have no huge problem with a register, and likewise I have nothing to hide, I just don’t think it would solve the problem.

When we try and solve problems with more rules and regulations we imagine that processes and laws can persuade someone to do right. If someone is set on breaking the rules creativity sours and innovation finds ways of manipulating the iron clad system to their advantage.

Without restoring trust to the heart of politics no amount of rules, scrutiny and investigative journalism will put things right. Because lobbying can be good or bad but it is essential. As I wrote before I want politicians to be persuadable, I want them to hear concerns, I want them to listen to the case that I make – and those I oppose – I want them to change their mind when they are wrong.

Because if they are not open to persuasion what basis are they elected for? They are neither automated party machine apparatchiks, nor are they delegates tied to the specific commands of their electorate. They are elected to take decisions, yes to represent, yes sometimes to govern, but we elect people to take decisions and part of that process is persuasion, campaigning, or if you want, lobbying. It is part of the lifeblood of democracy.

And whether it is from big business, charities, transparency campaign groups, churches or mother and toddler groups, we should all be able to do it.

But I want to persuade on the basis of the case I present not the cash in my wallet. And if someone could be bought for a price to back my particular horse, who’s to say they might not switch sides if a better offer came in.

I am convinced that the greatest political issue of this generation is the loss of trust in public institutions. We no longer believe they are oriented to serve the country but to serve themselves. And that will continue to corrode the relationship that is essential for them to thrive. The cycle that switches the public off from caring what politicians say is accelerated when their words might be available if the price is right.

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