The lobbying industry is at a crossroads. Never before has it been so scrutinised. Never before has it had so few friends. The situation has become so difficult that even the Government has been forced to act. At some stage there will be a register of lobbyists. In itself this is not a major problem. It is surely the first step, however, on the dangerous road to statutory regulation. The Government had no real appetite to act. It was forced to because of the industry’s failings.
The lobbying industry finds itself in this mess because it has not had either the self-confidence or expertise to deal with a clever and effective media campaign which sought to undermine the industry and what it does.
The Independent and the Sunday Times put the industry under the spotlight and to be frank the reaction of the industry has been more than a little disappointing.
The case for lobbying remains as strong as ever. It is essential that there is dialogue between government and external interests. Done properly, lobbying ensures that ministers, special advisers and officials are able to benefit from the private sector’s expertise and analysis. That is why there is nothing wrong per se with a minister dining with ten or so leading figures from industry. Good lobbying leads to better government which is surely in the public interest. Most ministers and shadow ministers acknowledge this. Without lobbyists they would be totally reliant on civil servants or party researchers.
But what has gone wrong is that the industry has allowed the debate to focus on what we don’t do rather than what we do. The skill of the lobbyist or more accurately the public affairs adviser is his understanding of how government really works and how best to communicate and engage with the key political players on any particular policy issue. The issue is not one of access although any half-decent lobbyist will know lots of politicians. Any CEO of a major company can pick up the phone to a minister’s private office and arrange a meeting. The lobbyist’s role is provide the client with a narrative and an understanding of what is and is not possible in terms of changing the Government’s mind. The lobbyist is retained by his client to deliver commercial advantage. The irony of course is that it is the client who does the lobbying not the lobbyist.
It is often the case that industries change because of external threats. This was true of private equity. It is true now of banking and the media. I suspect that it will also be true of lobbying. The relentless media campaigns have had an impact. Going forward there will be far greater transparency. Ministers will bring their private secretaries to any private dinners.
Agencies will need to be much more sensitive about their clients. They will also need to prove on a daily basis that they benefit the political process. There will also be a register of anybody who lobbies government. There is nothing in any of this which should cause concern. Lobbying done well is professional and beneficial. We should welcome and embrace greater scrutiny not run away from it.
The lobbying industry also needs to finally deal with its own image. Amazingly it never seems to take this issue seriously.
The lobbying industry has no serious spokesman and reacts to scandal and crisis in a way which is mostly amateurish and rarely professional. Yet what we do is now an essential part of the body politic. The industry needs to grow up, address its perceived failings and do what we have thus far failed to do which is to tell the world our side of the story. There is no place for arrogance but we do need to get back our confidence.
Peter Bingle is the founder of Peter Bingle Consulting