Power brokers go hunting on the left

As MPs debate Nolan today, lobbyists are rushing to recruit Labour's brightest brains, say Chris Blackhurst and Nicholas Timmins
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The Independent Online
Plenty will be said in the House of Commons about the lobbying industry later today. As MPs debate Nolan and the disclosure of their outside earnings, Labour backbenchers will not resist having a go at Tories' links with the likes of Ian Greer, GJW, Westminster Strategy, Westminster Communications and the other specialist parliamentary consultancies.

For many Labour MPs, lobbying is a dirty word. That, at least, is the public face. In truth, the party and the lobbyists are moving closer and closer together as the election nears. Whereas once Labour would have been ignored, now lobbyists hang on to the party's every word.

The annual conference this year in Brighton was awash with representatives from all the leading lobbying firms. Lowe Bell, home of Sir Tim Bell, once Margaret Thatcher's image-maker, broke with years of tradition and even held a reception there; some of the biggest names in business, such as Lloyd's of London, NatWest and Littlewoods, were happy to sponsor events on the Labour fringe. Midland Bank sponsored a creche, while Sainsbury's and British Airways held receptions.

MPs, particularly post-Nolan, may be sensitive about linking up with lobbyists, but many party workers and researchers have no such qualms. They see lobbying and everything that it entails as a new career opportunity, seeking out jobs doing everything from monitoring events at Westminster and Brussels to briefing clients on forthcoming legislation and effecting introductions with ministers and officials. Prior to the 1992 election there were only two or three lobbyists who had recently worked for Labour - most notably Mike Craven, now managing director of Market Access, who had worked in John Prescott's office, and Tony Page at GJW, who had worked for John Cunningham. Labour's defeat in 1992 brought no rush to snap up ex-Kinnock advisers. Neil Stewart, who with Charles Clarke was one of Kinnock's key fixers, says the atmosphere was "distinctly hostile". He applied for jobs for which he believes he was plainly qualified and found himself without even an interview.

The change began with John Smith's CBI speech in September 1992 which began the rapprochement with business that the Kinnock era never really achieved.

Mike Lee, a well respected adviser to David Blunkett for almost five years, and Julian Eccles, a key campaign co-ordinator in Walworth Road, moved across in 1993 to Westminster Strategy and Hill and Knowlton, respectively, two of the key players.

Meanwhile, outside the world of lobbying, the management consultants Booz Allen & Hamilton took on Wendy Alexander, one of Labour's brightest researchers in Scotland, with Andersen Consulting making the most dramatic capture by employing Patricia Hewitt, a key figure from the Kinnock era, who went to the company from the IPPR, the left-of-centre think-tank set up to help Labour break the mould of outdated policies. Margaret Hodge worked briefly for Price Waterhouse after she ceased to be leader of Islington council and before she became an MP.

The interest of management consultants in people with an inside knowledge of Labour has been followed over the past 18 months by the trickle of researchers and other Labour Party staff moving to lobbying firms turning almost into a torrent, though the quality of the people now employed by more than a dozen lobbying firms varies enormously.

For Labour workers, many of whom have existed for years on a relative pittance, the chance to earn a decent salary is difficult to resist. For many of them, as well, there is the realisation that come the election their chances of remaining near the action are diminishing. For as soon as the election is over, assuming that Labour wins, civil servants will then move in and only a handful of very senior people will be made special advisers in the new government.

"Some of the lobbying firms have bought themselves a pretty bum deal," one close observer of the scene said. "Recruiting former researchers to some of Labour's more obscure frontbenchers or MPs is hardly going to give their clients Gordon Brown's ear, however much it might make it appear that they have good Labour contacts."

Some, however, have been significant recruits for the lobbyists - notably Neal Lawson at Lowe Bell, who previously worked for Gordon Brown, Colin Byrne at Shandwick, who was Peter Mandelson's key lieutenant in the campaigns and communications department of Walworth Road, and David Gardner, at the Public Policy Unit, architect of the highly successful outcome Labour achieved from the Boundary Commission review.

Other notable names who have gone into lobbying are Rex Osborn, political intelligence officer at Walworth Road, Paul Wheeler, from Labour's election team, and Murray Elder, who was John Smith's chief of staff.

Mike Craven, of Market Access, says the growth is entirely market-driven. "Business now thinks Labour may well form the next government. They want to know Labour's views, they want to know the personalities and they want to know how a Labour government may affect their business.

"It is sound business sense - and the level of interest is far higher than before the last election."

Charles Miller, of Public Policy Unit, sums up the mood: "Everyone in town wants an assessment of Labour policy and its implications. Before the 1992 election, even when Labour was leading in the polls, it was very hard to interest business in Labour. Now they want to know what Labour is going to do to us, what it will cost us, what we should be thinking about. They are far better prepared for a Labour government than they ever were in 1992."

Business, said Mr Miller, no longer wants "to throttle Labour, but understand Labour." Lobbyists' wooing of the party, said Mr Miller, "has been pretty feverish for about a year. People we work for are realising it is better to work with a policy in gestation than to wait until it has gone through."

Lobbying consultancies are keener to get their political spread more balanced between left and right. "No one wants to be left holding the wrong baby," said Mr Miller.

Colin Byrne argues that what has been acquired from the more able recruits is not only Labour contacts, but also wider skills. "Where could you learn more about relaunches, crisis management and communication than working alongside Peter Mandelson in the Labour Party?" he says.

"I occasionally say to clients: 'you think you've got problems; you should have seen Labour in the period after the 1983 election'."

There is little sign, however, that the increase in lobbying in Labour's direction is resulting in Labour MPs taking or being offered paid consultancies. Mike Craven believes they will not take them. "It is culturally frowned on, anyway, in the Labour Party," he says.

"One or two have done it in the past. But it has never been regarded as the right thing to do, and at the moment it is going the other way, with Labour trying to redefine its relationship with the unions so that they sponsor the local party, not the individual MP."

In the post-Nolan atmosphere - with Shandwick, for example, deciding to part with David Mellor, its only paid parliamentary adviser - recruitment of Labour MPs is even less likely. "If a company offers a nice sleazy consultancy to a backbencher, the press get on to it; then the company suffers as well as the MP," claims one public affairs consultant.

Who's who on the lobby circuit

Lobby group Ex-Labour employee ... worked for:

Market Access Mike Craven John Prescott Ian Kennedy George Foulkes, Labour frontbencher Amanda Francis Mo Mowlam

Westminster Mike Lee David Blunkett

Strategy Rex Osborn was chief political intelligence officer, Walworth Road, Labour headquarters

Shandwick Colin Byrne Labour chief press officer and deputy to Peter Mandelson when he was campaigns and communications director

Westminster Murray Elder John Smith Communications

Lowe Bell Neal Lawson Gordon Brown Tim Fallon Joan Walley, former transport spokesperson

GJW Tony Page Jack Cunningham David Wilson Jack Cunningham Elizabeth Davies David Blunkett Stephanie Ayres Andrew Faulds, backbencher

Ian Greer Robbie MacDuff Allan Roberts, former environment spokesman

Public Policy David Gardner Labour local government and Unit boundary commission specialist Paul Wheeler Election co-ordinator Walworth Road

Connect Gill Morris Oonagh MacDonald, former frontbencher

GPC Anne Norris Walworth Road

Burston Philip Cole Assistant London regional organiser Marsteller

Hill and Julian Eccles Campaign co-ordinator and assistant to Knowlton party general secretary, Walworth Road

Granfield Phil Kelly Ex-editor of Tribune and former adviser to Michael Meacher

APCO Stephen King Labour agriculture researcher

Waterfront Michael MacDonald Policy unit, Walworth Road Partnership

Politics Jeanette Gould Kevin Barron International and John Smith