The politics of persuasion gone wrong

Lobbying is an important part of democracy - but where does the line of acceptable behaviour lie?

Lobbying is a fundamental part of democracy.  Everyone has the right to try and persuade a government of the justness of their cause and the need for particular pieces of legislation; but there are ways and means of doing this, and the testimony of News Corp’s representatives at the Leveson inquiry illustrates just how those ways and means can easily be abused.

The sight of James Murdoch squirming and suffering in front of the inquiry on 24 April no doubt delighted his critics.  The evidence that he, and others high up in News Corp, have let seep out about the extent of their links with the British government – a cosy Christmas lunch here, a nice ride through the English countryside there – have left many feeling very uncomfortable about the power and influence News Corp has, for a very long time, apparently wielded in the UK.  Heads may well roll as a result.

Attempts by companies to influence the policy process are not, of course, anything new.  And neither is it unique to the UK.  It was in Germany, for example, that the Flick consortium openly and brazenly claimed that they simply “cultivated the political landscape” by bankrolling all major parties (whilst concurrently persuading them to change tax laws in their favour) throughout the 1970s.  The role that big business plays in funding US politics is also nothing more than a statement of the obvious.

Whilst Murdoch’s tentacles may well have stretched too far in to the inner sanctum of British politics, it is not always easy to be clear on where it’s fair, appropriate and democratically legitimate, and where the line of acceptability is.  It is for that reason that the UK has some of the most well developed sets of rules, regulations and procedures on lobbying in the world.  Lobbyists, and the firms they work for, are faced with a myriad of dictats outlining what they can and cannot do, with whom they can and cannot speak, where, when and under what conditions they can say or do anything.  And the media – very much including the Murdoch owned part of it – love nothing more than coming down on miscreants who break these rules like a tonne of bricks.

Recently, the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) has added more weaponry to the self-proclaimed guardians of our democracy’s cause.  Ministers (as Jeremy Hunt is no doubt rapidly learning) should know that the public could theoretically end up seeing, reading or listening to more of their everyday business than ever before. Those who complain that this constrains the workings of government miss the point entirely; if government has been influenced by an outside source, if decisions have been taken based on the evidence (or indeed interests) of particular groups, then the wider world certainly has a right to know.  Hiding the business of politics in, say, private email accounts (as Michael Gove appears to have done) illustrates nothing more than a (perhaps deliberate) misunderstanding of how democracy really should work.  There are, with good reason, restrictions on FOI, of course – and there is always a case to be made for reviewing and revising such things.

But the point that public servants – and those engaging with them – need to remember is not that they need to cultivate friends to help them.  This is, like it or loathe it, true in all walks of life.  Rather, it is something that you could call the Daily Mail test; are you happy for your lobbying to be reported in public?  Are you confident that you have abided by the laws, rules, regulations and codes that shape political life?  Would you be happy reading about how your decision (or your attempt to influence a decision) was discussed in the Daily Mail?  If the answer is "yes", then you have nothing to worry about.  If, as James Murdoch and his associates are discovering, you are unhappy at having to discuss the details of how, when and under what circumstances you lobbied government, then that alone should tell you something.

Dr Dan Hough is Reader in Politics at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption
 

A protester wearing a Rupert Murdoch mask stands outside the High Court as James Murdoch appears before the Leveson Inquiry. Photograph: Getty Images

Dr Dan Hough is Reader in Politics at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.