Monday’s Western Mail contained this robust defence of lobbying and lobbyists from – as it happens – a lobbyist. The article issued a dire warning that democracy itself is endangered by any attempt by government to control lobbying. A little over the top, methinks.
Lobbying is, as the author says, a long-standing part of our democratic process, and I share his concern that a government proposal which applies only to ‘third party’ lobbyists “will not fulfil its main purpose of increasing transparency”. That strikes me, however, as an argument for extending the scope of the proposal rather than opposing it.
I understand the concern he expresses about whether a comprehensive proposal might lead to a situation where no group, organisation, or individual could put any case to ministers without having first registered as a lobbyist, and posing the question in that way underlines the complexity of the issue. But the fact that an issue is complex is not an excuse for ignoring it, which seems to be the desired outcome of the article.
It’s worth getting back to the nature of the concern many of us have about lobbying and lobbyists. That concern is not about whether individuals, groups, or companies can talk to ministers about their concerns, and seek to promote particular approaches and solutions. In itself, that is simply a normal part of democracy. The concern is about fairness and transparency.
Do those who have enough money to spend on receptions, hospitality, and professional PR merchants, and even to employ former politicians and civil servants, enjoy an unfair advantage in gaining access to politicians and therefore in putting their case over and above ordinary members of the public? And is there a danger that, as a result, policy decisions may be taken which favour those groups rather than the interests of society as a whole?
Politicians do not have to be corrupt to be swayed by regular contact (even if in a social environment with no mention of the policies which the hosts wish to change) to lean in a particular direction. The whole process is simply relying on the social nature of people. The government’s current proposals may well be deficient in getting to grips with the issues, but surely there can be little disagreement about their existence.
What threatens democracy is not an attempt to control and regulate lobbying, but the continuation of a situation where it appears that influence over policy can be bought.