Idealists in tents, murky lobbyists and the Mail getting it wrong

Peter Wilby peers at lobbyists working the corridors of our parliaments, government attempts to play

No doubt the British weather will soon rain on the earnest folk who have pitched their tents in St Paul's churchyard. But let me first sprinkle a light drizzle of my own. I share their outrage over how 99 per cent pay for the financial crisis while the 1 per cent that causes it acquires ever greater riches. But they need: a) a programme, b) organisation, c) influence. This entails things such as thinking hard, doing research, writing coherent reports, joining or forming political parties, attending meetings, getting elected and persuading other members of the 99 per cent that their solutions will work. Such activities are time-consuming, unglamorous and unfashionable and often don't lead to the desired outcomes. But just pitching a tent doesn't lead to anything at all.

Cash register

The debate over the lobbying industry, prompted by the Liam Fox scandal, sent me back to a book first published in 1958: Anonymous Empire, by the late Samuel Finer, a professor of politics at Keele, Manchester and Oxford. Finer didn't denounce lobbying as such: it provided, he accepted, specialised advice "without which laws would be mere chimeras and administration a mere bungle". His concern was the lack of clarity about when MPs acted on behalf of lobbyists. He had traced every amendment to the Transport Bill of 1946-47 to one interest group or another, but only through long years of research. "Light! More light!" he cried, demanding a register of members' interests.

Well, we've got the register but we are still pretty much in the dark. Finer's examples of lobbyists included chambers of commerce, trade unions, professional bodies and propaganda organisations such as the Socialist Medical Association. It was clear what nearly all of them stood for and where their money came from. In those days, only communists bothered to disguise themselves, setting up "front" organisations financed by Moscow gold.

Now even trade unions adopt names such as Advance, Aspect, Prospect, Unison and Unity. The ideal title, it seems, conveys as little information as possible. The Kangaroo Group sounds as if might be something to do with wildlife or Australian sport. In fact, it is a powerful lobbying group with 50 corporate members, including Goldman Sachs, BP and several arms companies; and, for unexplained reasons, it has offices in the European Parliament. Atlantic Bridge (Fox's "charity") had a relatively infor­mative title, because you know that anything with "Atlantic" in its name must be a front for rich American neocons.

If we have an official register of lobbyists, any organisation included should be required not only to reveal its sources of finance but also to adopt a title that gives some clue as to its aims.

I suggest variants on Support America!, Abolish Welfare, No Corporate Taxes and Cut Everybody's Wages would cover most cases.

Power point

The government's attempts to show it is doing something about energy prices border on the comic. Ministers want companies to simplify their tariff structures so that we can all make straightforward comparisons and switch suppliers. It won't happen. Given that they sell an identical product, the companies can compete only on price. If it were easy to see which charged the least, all energy suppliers except one would go out of business. Their supposedly competitive market can work only if they can outsmart some customers some of the time, trapping many into paying too much. In effect, savvy consumers, who nerdily spend hours comparing tariffs and direct debit discounts, subsidise those who aren't online, don't have bank accounts or are too old, busy, dim or lazy to work it all out.

If ministers want simplicity, they will have to renationalise the energy industry. That's all there is to it.

Clarification shocker

The Daily Mail, at last conceding that it is capable of error, has started a daily "Corrections and clarifications" column. An early example gives a helpful insight into Mail-style journalism. On 9 September, the paper reported that Britain was "languishing behind Albania in a league table for maths and science education", according to "an authoritative international study". We were also behind Iran and Trinidad and, overall, came 43rd out of 142 countries.

I wondered at the time why no other paper was reporting this sensationally inept performance. Now I know. The survey, the Mail is "happy to clarify", was "based on the opinions of business leaders about teaching in their own countries". Each day's Mail runs stories that involve little tricks like that. Either it will have to cut the tricks, or it will need to devote a whole page to "clarifications".

Runaway hands

In rugby union, as in many other sports, it is illegal to lift an opponent and throw him to the ground. It is also illegal (at least I assume so; the laws are silent on the matter) to strangle your opponent to death. Would the manly rugby pundits who deplored the sending-off of the Welsh captain, Sam Warburton, for the first offence during the World Cup semi-final against France, take the same attitude to the second? "Nothing malicious in that. Just got his hands in the wrong place. He let go once he realised the player had stopped breathing. These things happen. They'll all make it up and have a few drinks at the wake. Then it'll be forgotten."

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005