Under the influence
As Transparency International released the latest in a series of shocking reports on the state of lobbying and the political influence of corporate interests in December 2015, Loes Witschge spoke to today’s lobbyists and lifted the curtain on how they operate
Illustrations: Jade They
1st December 2015 (Taken from: #21)
There are an estimated 14,000 lobbyists in the UK but none of them, it seems, want to talk to me. Keen to know more about what they do for a living, I issue dozens of interview requests, which are met with evasions, silence or flat refusals.
This industry-wide omertà is unsurprising. As members of a £1.9 billion profession whose main purpose is to influence politicians on behalf of paying clients, the discretion of lobbyists is one of their key qualifications.
Eventually, after a particularly brusque brush-off from a British American Tobacco lobbyist (“Not interested. Good luck”), I find five lobbyists who are willing to talk about their trade – on the strict condition of anonymity. At their request, their names have been changed, and details about their employers and clients have been tweaked in order to keep their identities concealed.
A bias towards the furtive extends throughout the industry. My first interviewee, Alex, who until recently worked in the alcohol lobby, didn’t realise that he was applying to be a lobbyist until a surprisingly late stage of the hiring process. “My job wasn’t advertised as a lobbyist role, although they didn’t hide it either,” he says. “It wasn’t until I interviewed for the position that I started getting a handle on what they did. They certainly didn’t use the word ‘lobby’. That word didn’t come up until much later, when I had got comfortable.”
Partly to shock people I’ll tell them I’m an investment banking lobbyist. Of all the lobbyists, I’m the worst of the worst”
The lobbying landscape as a whole is opaque, diffuse and occasionally bewildering, with a wide array of players in action. Corporations and charities employ their own in-house lobbyists. Then there are the “gun-for-hire” political consultancies, PR firms, ideologically-driven think-tanks, campaign groups and “astroturfers” – industry-funded organisations which pose as grassroots movements to operate under the banner of public opinion. And almost none of the people who work for these organisations have the word “lobbyist” on their business cards. Preferred job titles include vague denominators such as “public affairs specialist”, “government relations officer” and “political consultant”.
But the lobbyists themselves know who they are.
“We all try and dress it up,” says Chris, a “senior consultant” in his early thirties who works at a public affairs firm, representing the views of multiple clients, including pharmaceutical companies. “We try and put it under the idea of communications. We all put fancy titles on, but effectively it’s all lobbying,” he says.
Edward, a sharply-dressed 20-something who works in Canary Wharf, is employed by an organisation that represents the interests of the financial services industry. His job is to talk to financial service providers including banks about their position on new EU legislation, formulate a response and relay it to policymakers in Brussels. He has no problem telling people what he does. “Partly to shock people I’ll tell them I’m an investment banking lobbyist. Of all the lobbyists, I’m the worst of the worst,” he says. “When I started I did think about how to describe myself. Policy officer, consultant… there are so many terms I could use. But people will ask questions and when they find out what I do it just looks shady. Using vague language only adds to the stigma.”
The misunderstood profession
Despite this stigma, says Tamasin Cave, lobbying shouldn’t be seen as inherently evil. Cave is the director of Spinwatch, an organisation that campaigns for transparency in lobbying, and author of A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain. “In principle, it’s a good thing,” she says. “Lobbying is any attempt to petition or change, influence or sway the decisions of government. There’s nothing wrong with that. We expect our governments to listen to us. They don’t have to agree with us, and they don’t necessarily have to act on what we say, but they need to listen. It’s essential to a functioning democracy.”
And indeed some of the lobbyists I meet describe their work as both benevolent and vital to government. In east London I meet Ben, who lobbies for a charity. The reason why lobbyists are important, he says, is because politicians suffer from a knowledge deficit.
“It is quite shocking to me how little politicians know,” he says. “They tell themselves the whole time that the public don’t really understand, but they are exactly the same. They have a set of instincts and ideological world views and they don’t really care that much about the details. They don’t have the time. The role of lobbyists is to provide that knowledge.” While going to Westminster to meet people face to face is important, Ben says that his most essential work is done behind his computer, hunting down statistics and crafting arguments. “I like to think it’s strategic – only a very small part of it is the actual execution.”
The actual execution, however, is still a formidable operation. A report on the industry compiled by the Hansard Society in 2007 surveyed 160 MPs and found that many were approached more than 100 times a week by lobbyists from trade associations, charities, businesses and so on.
In Brussels, lobbying is baked into the legislative process in a similar way. After their election, generalist MEPs are appointed to specialist committees dealing with topics they might not know much about. At this point the city’s 30,000 lobbyists – almost as many as the 31,000 people employed by the European Commission – step in.
“The MEPs can’t figure out where they stand based on their three staffers who do a bit of desk research,” says Dennis, a lobbyist who promotes business interests at the EU. We discuss the film Thank You For Smoking, in which three lobbyists representing alcohol, tobacco and guns keep their paymasters free of legislative hassle through a barrage of charm and gourmet dinners. “It’s not that sexy and we’re primarily there to give information. The legislators themselves decide how they use that information and which bits to take on board,” he says.
While this sounds quite innocent, it has to be noted that the number and quality of briefings that lobbyists can present to policymakers is strongly linked to the amount of money an industry can fling at them. In 2012, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that the UK’s financial services industry spent £92.8 million on lobbying politicians and regulators in the previous year alone – a figure that’s out of reach for the vast majority of special interest groups.
Banking lobbyist Edward only partially accepts the argument that money brings results. “It’s inevitable that when you hear a message over and over again from a variety of actors, it’ll become part of the truth – that’s the financial power this sector has,” he explains. “But a lot of the power of money is cancelled out by the fact that, politically, it’s very difficult to defend the banking sector.” There’s been talk in Europe for years about a Robin Hood tax on banks, the proceeds of which would be used to fight climate change: Edward and his co-lobbyists have been fighting hard against it. “We can write reports and negotiate with all the member states, but legislators rarely change their opinion,” he explains. “But if Greenpeace sends a tweet to the French minister of finance, he’ll respond saying he supports them.”
The UK lobbyists are wary of having their powers compared to their more influential colleagues in the US. “My understanding is that in the US people can buy policy a lot more easily because, frankly, the legislature has a lot of power, and every legislator has their own little campaign,” says Ben. “There are elections every few years and each of them needs a lot of money to compete. So there’s a weakness there that people can just chuck money at legislators, and that makes it very hard to resist them when they ask for a change of policy.”
Chris is especially cynical about the effectiveness of the UK’s lobbyists. “I think that a lot of people don’t realise that lobbyists aren’t actually achieving as much as they think they are. People who are lobbying usually set themselves very low targets,” he says. “People think we’re hypnotists: we go in and have a meeting and hypnotise politicians to make them believe what we want, or bribe them. The way it works is either they like what you’re saying or they don’t. It’s as simple as that.”
“Those damn lobbyists”
The origins of modern lobbying are, like much of the rest of the industry, shrouded in mystery. One foundation myth gratefully repeated by the marketing team of Washington DC’s Willard Hotel is that the term was coined in their establishment which, in the 1860s, was frequented by brandy-sipping, cigar-smoking president Ulysses S Grant. People seeking to influence him would congregate in the hotel lobby and hound him with requests on his way to the bar, leading Grant to refer to them as “those damn lobbyists”. It’s a nice enough story but, unfortunately for the Willard Hotel, it’s not true – the term had appeared in print well before the 1860s.
Cash for questions was a wake up call for the lobbying industry. Certainly, you would not get cash in brown envelopes now”
In the UK, the first lobbying firm was established in the 1920s by Commander Christopher Powell. By the 1980s, the sector was thriving. The slickest and most prominent operator in the business was Ian Greer, who died on 4th November 2015. As founder of Ian Greer Associates (IGA), his impressive client portfolio included Coca-Cola and the government of Slobodan Milosevic. Half the British cabinet – including Prime Minister John Major – showed up at the tenth birthday party of his company in 1992, and he was known for making legitimate donations to the election campaigns of friendly MPs. But Greer’s empire came crashing down when the UK’s lobbying sector was rocked by its biggest scandal to date.
On the evening of 18th October 1994, Guardian journalist David Hencke went to see Mohamed al-Fayed, then the owner of Harrods. A year before, al-Fayed had mentioned to Hencke’s editor that he had paid MPs to table questions in the House of Commons. Now, he was ready to make those allegations on the record. During the short meeting, al-Fayed told Hencke that he had been contacted by Greer about a business dispute al-Fayed was involved in. Greer, he claimed, told him his case was being badly presented and that he needed MPs to present it in parliament. “You need to rent an MP just like you rent a London taxi,” Greer allegedly told al-Fayed. The Harrods owner told Hencke that he had paid two MPs, Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith, to ask questions in the House, at a rate that worked out at about £2,000 a question. Hamilton and his wife, al-Fayed said, had also stayed at the Ritz Paris at his expense. At the end of the meeting, Hencke was given a teddy bear and a book about the Ritz, which, according to a later court statement, he accepted with embarrassment.
Two days later, the Guardian published Hencke’s story that al-Fayed had paid the MPs through Greer. Tim Smith, by now a junior minister, immediately resigned, admitting that he had taken payments from al-Fayed, though not from Greer. Hamilton and Greer issued libel writs against the Guardian. An official inquiry ultimately cleared all three men of the newspaper’s original allegations in 1997, but concluded there was “compelling” evidence that Hamilton, too, had received cash payments from al-Fayed. Hamilton issued a further denial. By this stage, Greer’s reputation had been so tainted that his clients and staff no longer wanted anything to do with him, and IGA went into voluntary liquidation in 1996.
The cash for questions scandal left Westminster reeling. It prompted the formation of a committee which set about drafting principles for ethical behaviour in public office and the establishment of the first professional self-regulation body for the lobbying sector, the APPC. “It was a wake up call for the industry. Certainly, you would not get cash in brown envelopes now,” says Tamasin Cave. “But I would say the situation is almost worse. We might not have that kind of backroom dealing any more, but the close relationships have got closer. There is an elite in this country – a political elite, a corporate elite, a media elite – that basically agree with one other. There’s nothing that’s damaging to that elite.”
“In the States, the UK and definitely in Brussels, you have a very sophisticated lobbying industry where the best-connected and best-funded groups have a much louder voice than the ordinary system,” Cave continues. “When you employ a lobbyist, particularly a well-connected one, you are buying yourself an advantage. You’re buying yourself an inside track to politicians.” Cave rejects the lobbyists’ assertions that they’re not really that effective. “You get lobbyists being caught repeatedly boasting to clients about what they can do, but when they’re talking to press or politicians they say ‘We don’t do anything’, and you think, ‘Well then why the fuck do you get paid?’” she says. “If they were ineffective, then we wouldn’t have a billion-pound industry here. They are spending this money for a reason.”
The lobbyist’s playbook
In his 2008 book Lobbying: The Art of Political Persuasion, veteran Westminster lobbyist Lionel Zetter evokes a rosy view of an industry that is “not just legitimate, it is also laudable”, as well as being “one of the world’s oldest professions”. “If the barons had not lobbied King John,” he writes, “he would not have signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede, and democracy in Britain might have evolved very differently.”
Zetter goes on to provide a comprehensive and at times amusingly specific ‘How to’ guide for budding lobbyists. “If you are going to make the most of party conferences you need to be out and about for 18 hours a day,” he writes. “Watch your alcohol intake and use drink spacers (a non-alcoholic drink between each alcoholic one). Also, if you get a chance, slip back to your hotel for a ‘power nap’ during some of the duller afternoon sessions!” In another section, Zetter provides pointers for organising a fringe event at a party conference. “Offer alcoholic drinks – champagne if you can afford it,” he concludes.
Some lobbying campaigns by the pharmaceutical industry are planned like military raids, complete with martial references and suggested targets”
The booze-fuelled schmoozing is geared around increasing a lobbyist’s personal connections. “One of the most important things is the networks that you create. Without them, life is very difficult,” says Chris. “You’ve got to know who the key people are and where you’re likely to find them. There’s a lot of socialising.” Many lobbyists have formerly worked in politics: Chris himself is a former House of Commons staffer who’s been involved with the Tory party for years. And outgoing MPs are often hoovered up by lobbying firms who covet their address books and expertise about the inner workings of government.
But influencing government isn’t quite as simple as calling up a cabinet minister who you’ve previously plied with Moët. Before a meeting takes place, a lobbyist needs to work to soften up their target. In her book, Cave quotes from a lobbying “battle plan” drafted by the pharmaceutical industry which shows how some lobbying campaigns are planned like military raids, complete with martial references and suggested targets.
“The [Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry] battle plan is to employ ground troops in the form of patient support groups, sympathetic medical opinion and healthcare professionals which will lead the debate on the informed patient issue. This will have the effect of weakening political, ideological and professional defences. Then the ABPI will follow through with high-level precision strikes on specific regulatory enclaves in both Whitehall and Brussels.”
This passage sounds almost ludicrously ominous, but it’s not dissimilar to the formula Chris tells me he uses to structure his campaigns. “You want to build a base first of all: support from parliamentarians, other stakeholder groups, trade associations, anyone relevant,” he says. “If you’re in a healthcare environment, maybe get some doctors on board. Sometimes celebrities, depends on what you’re doing. You get some media on it, that’s when the ministers start to think that there’s a bit of an issue arising and they realise ‘we’ve got to do something about it’. Then at that point you probably go in and try to meet with them.”
Ben says that ideological common ground is vital when it comes to getting a seat at the table – and life as a lobbyist for a charity aimed at supporting the less well-off can be tough under a Tory government. “A lot of my job at the moment is to say, ‘How do we increase our attraction for Tories?’ It’s not because the Tories are evil bastards, it’s because we have a different world view that fundamentally they don’t share that much,” he says. Fortunately, there are techniques available for lobbyists to work around the disconnect.
“The flip side of making yourself useful is making yourself a pain in the arse. Find their weakness and hit it publicly. Make a big show of that,” says Ben. “We have to do that because we don’t have the power that people inside the system do. We don’t have them by the balls in the same way that some corporations do. We can make ourselves important by kicking up a stink publicly and causing them problems. That’s the leverage we have.”
As much as the ballot box is important, someone can walk through a door and achieve more in a one-hour meeting than all the grassroots political work can in a lifetime”
Cave cites another key lobbying tactic, “shifting the ground”, by which the focal point of a debate is moved onto territory where it can be won. According to her, this has never been done more brazenly than by NOtoAV, the group which campaigned against electoral reform in the run-up to a 2011 UK referendum which was to decide on whether or not to change the first-past-the-post voting system. “Everybody would agree that AV was better than first-past-the-post, because first-past-the-post is awful. They couldn’t win on that ground,” says Cave. Instead, she says, NOtoAV relied on the contested claim that at a cost of £250 million, reforming the electoral system would be too pricey. They plastered billboards with posters of a newborn girl hooked up to medical equipment. “She needs a new cardiac facility NOT an alternative voting system,” read the slogan. The Alternative Vote system was rejected by more than two-thirds of voters.
Finally, a bit of quid pro quo goes a long way. Under the banner of corporate social responsibility, Alex’s former employers, an alcohol lobbying company, would gain traction with policymakers by offering them an easy win. “We were basically saying ‘Look, you want to reduce alcohol-related violence, we want to reduce alcohol-related violence. Here’s what we’re already doing with pubs to minimise violence. Do you think it’s a good idea? We can step it up’,” he explains. “The advantage for lawmakers is that this is a really good example of spending someone else’s money. It’s low-hanging fruit for them – rather than going after the really complex regulatory change which drives up prices.”
The lobbyist’s conscience
In the aftermath of the MPs’ expenses scandal, David Cameron said lobbying was “the next big scandal waiting to happen. It’s an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.” The latest big scandal arrived in early 2015, when Channel 4 and the Daily Telegraph alleged that two former foreign secretaries offered influence through their political positions to a fictitious Chinese company, with Sir Malcolm Rifkind boasting on tape that he could personally meet any ambassador in London – “and that provides access”. Despite the footage, both Jack Straw and Rifkind were cleared of breaking lobbying rules by the parliamentary standards watchdog in September.
In light of the frequent bad publicity associated with their profession, some of the lobbyists I speak to admit to having had their concerns about aspects of their jobs. “When I say that I’m a lobbyist I like to say that I’m a good lobbyist,” Ben says. But when the Labour Party called him up and asked for some ready-made policy, he did feel slightly uncomfortable. “They’re very under-resourced in opposition – you don’t have the civil service. We basically wrote the Labour Party’s agenda on that particular topic,” he says. “I got a bit uncomfortable in that basically we just told the Labour Party what to say about most things because they didn’t understand the issue. Power accrues to people who can explain the world effectively to people.”
Alex, too, admits to a certain degree of unease. “Was I uncomfortable with our relationship to lawmakers? Erm, yeah,” he says. “I think you can’t get too close to the political system without realising that at the end of the day, as much as the ballot box is important and politicians spend a lot of their time trying to win over their voters, at the same time someone can walk through a door and achieve more in a one-hour meeting than all the grassroots political work can in a lifetime.”
Chris is probably the most mercenary of the bunch. “It doesn’t matter who you’re representing, and everybody deserves to be represented. Why shouldn’t they be represented?” he says. When asked if there’s any client he would refuse he thinks for a long time. “The only one I’d probably draw the line at… No, no, I don’t… I think I’d be willing to, as long as they could justify it,” he says. “There have been some [clients] that maybe in the past I’ve had to turn down because it’s just not feasible, you couldn’t do any work for them. They can pay you all the money in the world, but at the end of the day you can’t do any work for them. And that would be national governments, and probably certain individuals who have done stuff that’s… toxic. Countries whose leaders have now been toppled. So it was probably a good call.”
He admits to getting the occasional flak from acquaintances: “You get people saying ‘Hold on a minute, I didn’t know you were lobbying for that – that’s disgraceful’,” he says. “Maybe this is more about me than anything else, but I’ve never felt bad about anything. It’s just a job, you know.”
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