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 Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.