Last month saw the creation of a new think tank, the Institute for Free Trade.
Speaking at the launch, Liam Fox stated its purpose: to persuade the masses to get behind free market capitalism. “We need to sell our vision to the public,” he declared.
What is interesting is not so much the current “sell” for free markets – you can read the pitch from the Institute’s founder, Dan Hannan, in the Sun on the day of the launch – but why corporate-backed lobby groups like the Institute for Free Trade keep being created.
Historically, it has been when big business has faced a crisis of legitimacy and felt its political power wane, and crucially when the electorate has looked like it might pose a threat to their interests.
This anti-democratic vein runs through much of the UK’s lobbying industry, of which the institute is a part.
Travel back 100 years to the birth of the first of these business lobby outfits in a street behind parliament, just around the corner from the institute. Originally called National Propaganda and later the Economic League, it launched a “crusade for capitalism”.
“What is required is some years of propaganda for capitalism as the best system that human ingenuity can devise”, the league proclaimed almost exactly a century ago.
At the time, reforms had just tripled the electorate and Labour found itself in the ascendancy. The purpose of the league’s crusade was to defeat this new, popular force in Britain. The underlying motivation, though, was to protect the narrow, private interests of industrialists, many of which financed the league.
It was the same in the forties when corporate-backed lobby groups sought to get an anti-nationalisation message across to “not only the worker, but his wife” . And in response to the progressive movements of the seventies, big business did what it always does: quietly-fund lobby groups to shape opinion and public policy. Among them, the Centre for Policy Studies, which now shares an address with the Institute for Free Trade, and in the US, Fox’s friends the Heritage Foundation.
All the while, the UK’s commercial lobbying industry expanded beyond the back streets of Westminster to become an estimated £2 billion industry today, the third largest in the world. For decades, undisturbed, it has helped business influence the decisions of government.
Money spent on lobbying is seen by big business as an investment, which explains why it outspends everyone else – SMEs, unions, charities, and civil society groups. Government can threaten corporate profits through regulations and restrictions. It can also provide endless opportunities to profit, through privatisation, tax breaks, subsidies and the rest. Influencing those decisions makes money.
Brexit presents business with an abundance of threats, but also to some unimaginable opportunities. As one corporate lobbyist recently noted: “Nothing I’ve seen in the last couple of decades comes close to this opportunity for legislative influence” . The Repeal Bill and its aftermath have been described as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for anyone looking to influence the rules of the game”. We have only the government’s word that the bill will not – through “niche clauses and amendments” as another lobbyist puts it – be used to quietly benefit private and corporate interests.
This is party time for lobbyists, and it’s why a conga line of ex-ministers, officials and advisers now stretches from Westminster and Whitehall to the lobbying agencies and law firms that are selling Brexit services. Among those now in a position to provide an inside track to government are: Cameron’s ex-comms chief, ex-press secretary, and ex-special adviser; former Conservative Party chair, Andrew Feldman; William Hague; a senior figure from Theresa May’s Policy Unit; No10’s former deputy political director; Boris Johnson’s ex-chief adviser…. it’s a long and growing line.
As well as an inside track, lobbyists also need a compliant media. If government is to take certain decisions, the press needs to be broadly onside, adopting the frames set by spinners and promoting the right arguments. This is where lobbyists’ network of “third parties” comes in: the commentators, economists, academics and others that can be relied on to push the line. Journalists will protest, some rightly, but as Conservative lobbyist James Frayne puts it, his industry has “evolved a system which is highly accomplished at spinning the press”.
Add to this the secrecy that accompanies lobbying in the UK – as one lobbyist notes “the influence of lobbyists increases when… it goes largely unnoticed by the public” – and you have the perfect conditions for what Cameron called the “cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest” . The register of lobbyists he introduced in 2015 to lift the curtain on this world is, though, a sham. It means that, as the UK embarks on the mother of all legislative shakeups, we have next to no idea who the government is talking to, or what about.
Except glitches are now starting to appear in this system.
Fewer messages are landing with the public (see the campaigns for HS2 and fracking). The power of the press to influence opinion is far from broken, but it has been shaken by scandal and an apparent tin ear for public opinion. The recent downfall of the most notorious of London’s lobby shops, Bell Pottinger, brought about by its secret campaign to stir up racial tensions in South Africa, is a symbolic victory too. For decades, it laundered the reputations of some profoundly anti-democratic clients around the world.
The current Labour leadership is also a disrupting force. Lobbyists, whose business relies to a large extent on relationships – often built over years, or shortcut by hiring former colleagues of the target politician – didn’t bother with Corbyn. They are now. Don’t misunderstand me: there are legions of corporate persuaders with links to the Labour Party and some industries – property developers, the for-profit healthcare industry, nuclear power – appear as if embedded in it. But, in the words of one industry insider, lobbyists with strong links to Team Corbyn “can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and you might still have five fingers spare”.
Perhaps the most powerful change, however, is the demonstration of how things can be different. The World Transformed in Brighton last month was a place to participate in policy debates, which was open to all. The Institute for Free Trade, by contrast, is a women-free zone, funded by hidden corporate backers, which presented a persuasion campaign as its response to public dissatisfaction with the form of capitalism currently on offer.
The UK needs to open up the activities of lobbyists to public scrutiny as a matter of urgency. As important, though, is showing that an alternative exists to the “cosy club at the top”.
Tamasin Cave is a lobbyist for the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, a campaigner with Spinwatch and co-author of A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain (Vintage, 2015)