Mark Seddon: The irresistible rise of corporate influence over governments

During the early '80s I worked as a lobbyist and saw the opportunities opened up by privatisation
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The Independent Online

Ralph Nader, presidential contender and veteran scourge of corporate America, has left the crude caricatures of his opponents to others. "Gore and Bush are pure Tweedledum and Tweedledee," says Norman Birnbaum, emeritus Professor of politics at George Town University.

Ralph Nader, presidential contender and veteran scourge of corporate America, has left the crude caricatures of his opponents to others. "Gore and Bush are pure Tweedledum and Tweedledee," says Norman Birnbaum, emeritus Professor of politics at George Town University.

Others are still less charitable. "This is the robot [Gore] versus moron [Bush] show" is seemingly the accepted wisdom.

Nader is set to have a far more profound and longer-lasting impact than that ever achieved by his alter ego, blue-collar right-wing populist, Pat Buchanan. For Nader picks up where Buchanan left off. He provides answers to his small-town siege mentality. Like the Peter Sellers character, Chauncey Gardner, Nader speaks a simple truth: that politics has become television; big business allows politicians to use television; and politicians have become owned by big business. His message has more resonance today.

For the market fundamentalism that has followed in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall has witnessed the biggest auction of state assets - on an international scale - in history. The march of big business into areas of public life has been as quick as it has been remorseless. And Britain swiftly followed the USA, where virtually anything and everything has a price.

Poor old Edward Heath is still despised by his Thatcherite tormentors for presiding over a sclerotic state of affairs bequeathed him by earlier Socialist governments. Back then, they say, politicians pandered to the unions through a tripartite alliance of government, business and trade unions - or corporatism, as it became known.

In the era of Acas, Neddy and Hughie Scanlon, eyebrows were only raised when former Labour Ministers such as Alf Robens, passed through a revolving door to become Lord Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board. There were few if any commercial lobbyists, public relations was in its infancy and Shell was still producing glossy colour prints of hedgehogs for schoolchildren.

Thirty years on, that old corporatism is being replaced by a highly government- and regulation-resistant strain of "corporationalism". Fiercely opposed to "red tape", which can be anything from union membership to extra safety costs, the big corporations see government as a potential hindrance to their activities.

But at a more prosaic level, many corporations still believe in spending vast sums on wining and dining politicians, sponsoring party conferences or think tanks, and straightforward lobbying, because it gets results. During the early 1990s, I worked as a lobbyist. I saw at first hand the new opportunities opened up by the big privatisation programmes of that period, and from the lucrative world of take-overs and asset-stripping.

Barely a year into a Labour Government, and Jack Straw had dropped his opposition to more private prisons. Elsewhere, Rupert Murdoch's tax- avoiding News Corp was sponsoring a Department for Education literacy drive. Possibly a similar altruism lay behind News Corp's pre-election sponsorship of the left-leaning Institute of Public Policy Research to conduct media research.

It would take a brave soul - and a newspaper richer than The Independent- to venture a conclusion on the exact nature of the dynamic between Rupert Murdoch,Tony Blair, and a government that dropped a long-held commitment to restricting cross-media ownership. Yet "think tanks" continue to provide the best cover for maximum influence and at very little cost. Whether receiving direct sponsorship or not, they can usually be relied upon to "think unthinkable" market solutions on the withering public services.

Barely a week before the Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, announced an NHS/private-sector concordat, or rather, a long-time subsidy for the under-utilised private health companies, press attention had focused on a similar patient cure being canvassed by... the Institute for Public Policy.

Last week, Tony Blair defended the Government's environmental policy. He did so, reported Private Eye, from a platform provided by the Green Alliance, an organisation that you and I cannot join, but which allows corporate membership at £2,500 a throw. For that money, Green Alliance supporters get access to ministers - and so, it was claimed, a chance to "brainstorm policies for the [Labour] Party's internal policy review". Private Eye claimed that the Green Alliance is subscribed to by, among others, Shell, Amerada Hess and BP.

For rather less than £2,500, I could provide a list of the 150-odd members of Labour's National Policy Forum to Shell, Amerada Hess or BP. Better still, I could tell them who is worth bothering with and who isn't. Companies such as BP are liberal with their affections, for that company has been one of the biggest donors to the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Chatham House, as the Institute is known, is one of the longest established and influential of foreign-policy think thanks.

During the last fuel crisis, Downing Street believed the oil companies would respond to their pleadings to force the tankers to break the blockades. But even powerful oil and transport executives proved unable or unwilling to get the tankers rolling. This week, the Government will come under renewed pressure from road hauliers, yet ministers are still nervous of putting any of the blame for high prices on the oil companies - at a time when Shell is able to record a 60 per cent increase in profits.

Prior to the last election, Labour promised substantial windfall taxes on the privatised utilities - some way removed from nationalisation, but nonetheless popular and sensible. Perhaps corporationalism has gone too far to allow Gordon Brown to levy a windfall tax on the oil companies later in the week. But if Ralph Nader were here, you can bet he would be champing at the bit to do so.