Jon Trickett: Don’t let voices of the lobbyists drown out democracy

I’VE recently been to Washington. There is a universal feeling there that the system is bust, broken by the power of big money in politics. Someone told me that America was in danger of becoming a corporate-ocracy not a democracy. Where the corporations dominate; not the people. This must not happen here.

The issue of lobbying reform goes right to the heart of one of democracy’s fundamental questions. Will Parliament serve the common good of the millions or be subservient to the private interests of the millionaires?

Parliament is meant to serve the widest public interest, not simply the power of a tiny elite.

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Take the tobacco industry. I met a woman in some distress in my constituency. Her husband – a lifelong smoker – had developed lung cancer and was dying. He was in hospital a long way from home. They had been married for 50 years. It was their first time apart. Unable to drive; inadequate public transport and expensive taxis meant she couldn’t afford to visit her dying husband very often.

But that was not what she came to talk about. Her message was: “Smoking’s a killer. Please stop it.” In effect, she was lobbying me on behalf of her husband. A natural part of the democratic process. Lobbying.

Big Tobacco lobbies too. Of course there is no moral equivalence between the tobacco barons and their victims. My constituent’s objective was to safeguard the futures of the young. Big Tobacco’s objective is to maintain the killing machine. If you put aside this moral question, you could argue that there is a rough democratic equilibrium as politicians can hear both sides of the argument.

But the truth is that, too often the quiet voice of my constituent is little heard and this is the problem – an asymmetry in the lobbying capacity of the big corporations and the rest of the population.

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Big Tobacco has long sought a system of close relationships with those elected to positions of power. Ken Clarke was deputy chairman and a director of British American Tobacco from 1998 to 2007 while a member of the Shadow Cabinet. Last year, 17 Tory MPs accepted hospitality gifts from Japan Tobacco International.

Recently, there was a Government u-turn on its stated intention to insist on plain tobacco packaging. The Government reversed its decision shortly after the appointment by David Cameron of the professional lobbyist Lynton Crosby. He gives “political advice” to the Conservatives. But he also lobbied against plain packaging of cigarettes in Australia.

The public are left with a feeling that something is not quite right. A statutory register of lobbyists would immediately clarify any possible conflict between Mr Crosby’s commercial interests and his role as advisor.

I wrote to Mr Cameron asking for a voluntary declaration of Mr Crosby’s interests. But he hasn’t yet replied. The contrast with my constituent and her dying husband could not be starker. Her voice is unlikely to be heard in No 10.

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Some techniques used by lobbyists are very subtle, you might say insidious. They disguise their true intentions. They use front groups and third party advocates. Prior to the 2008 Public Health Act, the Tobacco Retailers Alliance funded by the tobacco giants orchestrated the “Save Our Shop” campaign.

MPs received thousands of postcards asking us to help save small shops in our constituencies. Ostensibly acting on behalf of 25,000 independent retailers, the campaign sought to disguise its true nature. No reference was made to the way the campaign was paid for.

Mr Cameron was right when he said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Nothing less than openness and transparency is acceptable, but look at the last ministerial reshuffle. When completed, it became apparent that no-one was given formal responsibility for lobbying reform. Not one single minister. And yet the industry’s tentacles are far-reaching – no less than 82 Tory MPs have declared links to the lobbying industry and some might speculate that this is the real reason for the lack of action.

Labour is absolutely clear what needs to be done. And we stand ready to help the government legislate. Legislation should secure the following:

A clear definition of professional lobbying.

A statutory register of all those who lobby professionally.

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A clear code of conduct, the first line of which should be to forbid financial relations between lobbyists and Parliamentarians.

Strong sanctions in the cases of breaches of the code of conduct.

The overwhelming majority of lobbyists understand, and indeed welcome this. In a democracy, government needs to be open 
to influence from all parts of 
our society.

From the smallest neighbourhood group to the largest commercial operators. From the grieving widow to the multinational corporations. An engaged, interactive–active, citizens’ democracy at its best.

But without robust statutory regulation, the perception will continue that big business, the powerful, the few, will continue to privately gain access to decision-makers at the expense of the many.