Joyce McMillan: Where influence is going for a song

A row over lobbyists influencing government policy on smoking this week has obscured a significant problem that leaves ordinary voters powerless and disillusioned with the main parties. Picture: Getty

A row over lobbyists influencing government policy on smoking this week has obscured a significant problem that leaves ordinary voters powerless and disillusioned with the main parties. Picture: Getty

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IN JULY, Scotland goes on holiday; but at the Palace of Westminster, politics grinds on far into the dog days of July.

Tempers fray in the heat; and one of the bitterest rows of this furious final week in the House of Commons was the one about lobbying, triggered by the government’s announcement that it would not, after all, be introducing plain packaging for cigarettes, a move said to be particularly effective in reducing the number of young people who take up smoking.

Now it’s worth pointing that the Labour Party at Westminster also failed to introduce this measure, while they were in government. There was something, though, about the government’s sudden end-of-term announcement that seemed to set the Westminster undergrowth alight, particularly given the links between the tobacco giant Philip Morris International, and the lobbying company run by the Prime Minister’s campaign strategy advisor, Lynton Crosby.

A fierce row ensued, with the Labour leader Ed Miliband demanding an investigation, and the Prime Minister proudly pointing out that unlike its predecessor, his government had at least just legislated to set up a register of lobbying companies at Westminster. And meanwhile, a BBC Radio 4 investigative programme about the role of tobacco company lobbyists fizzled out, slightly, at the point where Tory MP David Davies could be heard confirming that the only hospitality he had ever enjoyed from Philip Morris consisted of some dried-out curly sandwiches, and a sausage on a stick.

For behind the sound and fury of this row about lobbying, there lurked one of those elephants in the room that are becoming such a striking feature of Westminster politics; the fact that when it comes to influence-peddling at the upper levels of British government, lobbying has almost nothing to do with it. Lobbying is, after all, a perfectly legitimate activity; charities do it, campaigns do it, companies do it, and even trade unions do it, although usually with very little success.

When major commercial interests seriously want to change policy, though, the best-organised of them know that straightforward lobbying and argument is merely the tip of the iceberg. What’s needed, to achieve real results, is a cohort of politicians and public servants, at the highest possible level, who will support these companies’ positions as a matter of course; and that is achieved not so much by presenting them with arguments, as by co-opting and employing them, and making sure that a large part of their own present or future economic well-being is dependent on their continuing harmonious relationship with the industry in question.

It has been demonstrated, for example, that a fifth of all members of the House of Lords have financial interests in private healthcare companies, as do more than 10 per cent of MPs, and many members of the present Cabinet. And while there is no suggestion, of course, that any of these politicians would sink so low as the peers who were recently recorded offering themselves for hire, it has to be recognised that this high level of connection with the private healthcare industry has not arisen by accident. On the contrary, it represents a hugely successful exercise, by one of the strongest lobbies in western politics, in penetrating the British political class, and breaking down its traditional support for public healthcare; and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the recent introduction of NHS changes in England which will open up vast new opportunities for private healthcare companies – legislation which was enacted against massive expert opposition, and despite explicit manifesto guarantees that there would be no such change – is profoundly linked to this successful campaign.

And across a whole range of powerful interests, from defence and weapons manufacture to the booming security industry, the picture is the same; politicians can transform their own financial prospects by taking the money offered by these groups, and representing their interests, just so long as they “declare” what they have done. And this week the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats at Westminster voted – with vigour, and without shame – to maintain their right to do so, on the laughable grounds that these lavishly paid activities as consultants and directors keep them “in touch” with the outside world, when in fact they could hardly divide them more completely from the lives of ordinary British workers.

Nor is this merry-go-round of payments to individuals the only mechanism through which these vast commercial interests exercise their clout. Donors associated with the banking, finance and private healthcare industries, for example, are thought to have contributed more than 60 per cent of the total income of the Conservative Party over the last decade; and the other mainstream parties have also accepted large donations from the same kinds of sources.

And it is this, not the predictable and above-board activity of professional lobbyists, that represents the real scandal of current British politics. For against the mighty roar of such high-powered commercial influence-peddling, ordinary voters have increasingly little hope of making their voices heard at all. Our major UK political parties have largely become empty shells, run by careerists and policy-wonks without political grass roots. The trade unions are framed and dismissed as just another vested interest, even though they represent millions of ordinary British workers. And although we are allowed to choose, once every four or five years, between the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of UK politics, the efficiency of influence-peddling guarantees that the policies implemented will be far too similar for comfort, no matter how we vote.

Of course, there are still millions of good people across the UK who care about the fight for social justice and empowerment begun by their great-grandparents, and who will try to pursue it as best they can. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Westminster politics is barely capable, any longer, of beginning to represent their views.

And if Ed Miliband is a clever enough Labour leader to have worked out a way of escaping the grip of corporate influence on UK government policy, he has not yet found a way of sharing his vision with the British people; or of persuading them he knows how to make that vision a reality.

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