Learn to love lobbying - it’s part of the ugliness of democracy

You want a receipt for that, guv? Stephen Byers famously described himself as a ‘cab for hire’ Nyall and Maryanne via Creative Commons

I had better declare an interest: it’s that sort of week. I co-edit a journal called Interest Groups and Advocacy. This is of no interest to HMRC, but the journal’s name merits examination in the context of lobbying. Transatlantic influences successfully pushed for inclusion of the “advocacy” term in the title.

While here in the UK this has legal overtones, in some US circles everyone is seen as potentially advocating – especially interest groups. Advocacy in this sense is just “putting your oar in” and is generally “a good thing”.

How one reacts to events in the Palace of Westminster is perhaps shaped by the narrative that is used to summarise our understanding of the process of policy making. Is lobbying a threat to the democratic system or just the politics of everyday advocacy?

As it happens, there are two major scripts about political life. In one lobbying is the disease of democracy, in the other it is the democracy.

Influence eating at the body politic

The first, more prestigious and longer established view has no valued place for self-interested advocacy. The surprisingly long-lived majoritarian idea echoes, totally uncritically, old two-party politics nostrums which see politics as ideology-based with parties offering competing manifestos and the public selecting a victor.

The electoral rules tend to magnify a bare electoral majority into a parliamentary majority which gives the cabinet of the winning party a pretty free rein to implement the programmes on which they were elected.

In this simple line of legitimacy and accountability, interests intervening in the party-voter-manifesto triangle become objects of democratic suspicion. This model imagines that parties arrive at policies by their insight and values, acknowledging obligations to contributors and supporters and informed by the knowledge that only popular policies will guarantee continuity in office.

The main problem with this interpretation is that in practice the choices are so constrained by economic factors, market pressures, and intransigent public opinion that the battleground is about the loose change found at the margins of the fringes of the edge of the economy.

Fare play: Stephen Byers’ admission prompted the Labour aprty to bring in a new code of conduct. Edmond Terakopian/PA Archive

This “alternating agendas” approach has been largely discredited by the fact that the famous old pendulum of politics seems to have worn out, but as we cling on to it as a “story”, all sorts of things are “read” as problems and deviations from “proper” politics. So lobbying in general is a problem if the party-voter-manifesto thesis occupies the pedestal of idealised practice.

The art of consensus building

Under the label of “governance”, a second version of politics has emerged (without the first being properly retired). The idea of clear alternative policies catering for different clienteles has been replaced by “me too” (maybe “me more”) politics, where the parties compete to do the same things and are wary of “dissing” any groups of voters.

Labour might just risk attacking rich pensioners because the cost benefit is that it will please a bigger constituency than it loses; the Conservatives will risk attacking scroungers - while making it clear these are nothing like the same people as the working class. Big audiences are courted either way.

In this sort of politics, the house rule is to keep a maximum set of interests on-side. Political decision-making is not framed by general elections, but by a general expectation that policies are made to satisfy group demands. “What is to be done” becomes a constant conversation with affected interests.

Of course politicians sometimes impose and just occasionally seek to increase their reputation by being seen to be tough with their “clients”, but the broad pattern is that ministers “defend their corners”.

Ugly democracy (or politics as usual)

But there are two versions of the governance tale in circulation. The first we can label consensus governance: the second account we might term realpolitik governance - or politics as usual or what John Hibbing referred to as the “ugliness of democracy”.

This governance approach see the role of groups and causes in educating government, polishing proposals, criticising other group ideas as all positive. It may be a messy way to do business, but it actually both gives room for democratic voices and probably – it is assumed - improves the policy mix.

To go back to interest groups and advocacy, the hunch is that studies of elections and parties have reached the epoch of diminishing returns. If we want to understand how democracy functions and policies evolve we need to pay more attention to advocacy and negotiation in all its forms and venues. So lobbying is an important part of that agenda – both on-account representation by interests and the actions of professional for-hire lobbying businesses.

Studies of such lobbying need not have the moral high ground tone that informs criticism from the old two-party paradigm. Lobbying in the governance light is inevitable and probably functionally useful. But this pat on the head for the lobby industry does not give a “pass” to all the parliamentary embarrassments trailed in the press this week. Real world politics may be messy, but it does not have to be tawdry, cheap and dirty.

Stung: Patrick Mercer resigned the Conservative whip last week after becoming embroiled in the latest ‘Lobbygate’ affair. Johnny Green/PA Wire

What were these deluded politicos thinking they could deliver? Self-importance on stilts. The good news for the system is for all the press’ efforts, they have not entrapped participants of real significance – ministers and policy civil servants. Members of the Lords and backbench MPs are about as important to policy as corner flags are to football. They are on the pitch, colourful and sometimes flap a lot, but rarely affect the game.

The strange thing is however is that this is summarised as a lobbying story but where were the guilty lobbyists? The punishment is industry regulation, but professional lobbyists were on neither side of the table. (And of course it is a punishment sought by a large chunk of the affected industry.)

The problematic behaviour was in parliament. Sorting out a transparent register of interests means miscreant politicians in the future could be sure they are acting dishonestly for honest lobbying causes. The industry merits attention, but this week putting scrutiny on the lobbyists is letting the guilty politicians off the hook. Advocacy may be everywhere, but that is not to say everything goes.