We need to distinguish between illicit access, professional lobbying and legitimate campaigning

Tuesday 6th December 2011

Tony Breslin Speaking

There seems to be some muddled thinking out there in the aftermath of the Adam Werritty and Bell Pottinger affairs and the reported (and sometimes filmed) endeavours of former ministers to open up the gates of power, if others (those seeking illicit access to the influential) will open their cheque books. It seems to me we need to establish two things here: first, that lobbying (placing legitimate pressure – through protesting and campaigning – on those making decisions or influential in the decision-making process) is vital in a healthy democracy and, for that matter, in an unhealthy one; second, that offering illicit access for payment or through elite and closed networks definitely distorts this process while engaging professional ‘third party’ lobbyists risks doing so. Whether through the brown envelope, the old school tie or the lobbyists fee, the latter more about buying power rather than winning authority, as one might through argument, campaign or protest.

Here, the work of interest groups, especially those small and medium sized organisations that dominate the third sector and civil society more broadly – community groups, charities, social enterprises – is completely different. The effectiveness, power and authority of their lobbying rests not in the size of their bank balance or the fee they can pay to get others to do their lobbying for them but in their ability to win supporters to their cause through argument, ingenuity and sheer hard work. And it rests the talent of their committed staff, trustees and volunteers.

Punishing those caught ‘buying’ influence through the back door will strengthen democracy, clipping the wings of the professional lobbyists (through registers and regulation) will protect it, encouraging and building the capacity of those campaigning for change will invigorate it, putting an Arab-style ‘spring’ in all our steps, producing a bigger society by any definition.

Perhaps the more enlightened and corporately responsible professional lobbying firms might re-invent themselves – not just lobbying for their wealthy clients, but developing a business model that enables them to share their tool-box more broadly – offering training to community groups, smaller charities and others who are short on human, social and financial capital. If their ‘dark arts’ are brought into the light, we might all benefit – and our politics would too.

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