Labour’s love-bombing lobbyists

9 Jul

Thanks once again to reader Dave Hansell for this. I’ve already posted twice on last week’s “tepid” Labour win under Keir Starmer on fewer votes than in 2019 and 2017 under Jeremy Corbyn. In Britain’s rulers anoint Starmer’s Labour I wrote of Britain having:

… with little enthusiasm – and in very much lower numbers than those which in March re-elected Mr Putin in Russia – put its five-year collective pencil to the tick-box of illusory choice to eject TweedleTory from office, and usher in TweedleTorylite …

I followed with an account of the currents – diverse yet united in purpose, resolve and lack of the slightest pretence of accountability – which helped Sir Keir to reclaim His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition for Britain’s ruling class.

The next day, in Starmer, missed steps and misused terms, I got more specific …

the task of Western governments is to lower expectations of the state – health, social security and other  provision. To pull this off without sparking costly unrest requires a softly-softly approach more easily achieved by governments avowedly Left of Centre.

… but not more detailed. What follows is not only for those whose eyes roll at all talk of a ‘ruling class’. It’s equally for those like me. We may have shed the belief, akin to that in Santa and the Tooth Fairy, that ours is a democracy but we remain hazy on the nitty gritty of how an oligarchy works.

My posts were on how and why Britain’s Labour Party was made safe for Capital after Corbyn’s mild programme of social justice. They had little to say, however, on the mechanisms by which such a party, once in government, engages with Big Money in ways that seem a win-win for all but in reality ensure ‘austerity tomorrow’ in ever more immiserating forms. Especially when its election by default has been a foregone conclusion for nigh on two years; years not wasted by the lobbyists who wined and dined shadow ministers, and now look to cash in as those they so assiduously courted now hold budgets – and power of attorney on your behalf and mine.

Over to Ethan Shone, reporting today, on an openDemocracy investigation of that very subject.

Lovebombed by lobbyists: How Labour became the party of Big Business

An openDemocracy investigation reveals the secretive mass lobbying campaign that shaped Starmer’s policies.

Twelve months before seizing power in last week’s historic election victory, Keir Starmer and the Labour Party welcomed with open arms an unprecedented lobbying campaign by the UK’s most powerful corporations.

Weapons manufacturers implicated in human rights abuses in Gaza bent the ears of would-be defence secretaries. Incoming climate change ministers met with oil companies. Labour ministers who will now be responsible for curbing the excesses of the City of London were wined and dined by financial services executives. Public affairs firms representing asset managers, the tobacco industry, gig economy firms and tax-avoiding mega corporations secured meeting after meeting after meeting with future ministers.

In a high-voltage campaign that was simultaneously secretive yet enacted in plain sight, lobbyists worked hard to ensure the policies of the UK’s first ostensibly progressive government in 14 years reflected the interests of their influential clients. And Labour was only too happy to engage.

Westminster’s lax transparency rules mean there is no official record of this mammoth public affairs offensive. The rulebook says the public has no right to know which companies lobby the opposition – a position shared by Starmer’s Labour. In every instance, the party has refused to disclose what was discussed, what promises were made, and even who was at its meetings, saying: “We should not be treated as the government.”

Now, an investigation by openDemocracy lays bare the astonishing access that Big Business had to Starmer and his frontbench team.

openDemocracy spent months gathering information about lobbying meetings from a variety of open sources, including parliamentary meeting rooms’ booking logs, social media posts and events publicised by lobbying firms. These meetings, spanning the past 18 months, have included private meetings, exclusive Q&A sessions, dinners, mixers, briefings, client roundtables, overseas visits and seminars.

We have identified hundreds of meetings that senior figures in the party held with corporate lobbyists, financial institutions and business groups. On average, they met with influential business leaders every single working day of the past year.

This is about more than private dinners and smoked salmon breakfasts. Starmer’s cabinet is about to begin implementing the programme for government laid out in Labour’s manifesto. As Rachel Reeves, his new chancellor, said last month, the “fingerprints” of business are all over Labour’s policies, shaped as they were through an unprecedented level of engagement with corporate lobbyists, financial institutions and business groups.

Experts warn the consequences of the party effectively outsourcing its policy-making to private corporations will be far-reaching for British society. Labour has pledged to build new towns, to increase green investment, to reform health and social care and to launch major infrastructure projects. Mick McAteer, a former director of the UK’s financial services regulator has warned that the much-vaunted partnership with private finance which lies at the heart of all these plans “will result in a massive transfer of wealth from local communities to the City of London and global financial institutions over the next decade”.

The corporate lobbyists

Lobbying is a huge business in the UK. Dozens of agencies make millions every year advising clients on how to influence policy to their benefit and get their messages heard by the politicians who write laws, set regulations and sign off on public sector contracts. The last decent estimate of the industry’s size is from 2007, when Gordon Brown was still the prime minister. A study by the Hansard Society then put it at around £1.9bn. Insiders suggest it has certainly grown in the nearly two decades since.

A big part of a lobbyist’s work is getting their clients access to the right people, which often relies on the lobbyist themself knowing the right people – or having contacts who do. Around 18 months ago, after the spectacular implosion of the Liz Truss regime meant the chances of Labour taking power started to look more likely, the public affairs industry began to reorient en masse.

To prepare for a Labour government, lobby firms began establishing dedicated ‘Labour Units’. They hired former Labour MPs and staffers to make use of their contact networks, with a few even snapping up prospective candidates or seconding staff members directly into the offices of senior party figures. Lobbying firms Global Counsel, Lowick Group, FGS Global and Weber Shandwick have all sent members of staff to work in the offices of senior Labour figures in the past two years – at a combined cost to the firms of more than £100,000.

Other lobbying companies have given donations in cash or in-kind to influential MPs, despite industry rules seeming to bar this practice. New deputy prime minister Angela Rayner alone has received donations from two lobbyists – Sovereign Strategy and Pentland Communications – in the past year.

openDemocracy reached out to each of the firms mentioned above to ask whether they expect to receive anything in exchange for seconding members of staff at their own cost or donating to MPs, but received no response.

The lobbyists’ efforts bore fruit: in the twelve months leading up to the election, not a week went by without a member of Labour’s frontbench team attending a private client roundtable organised by a lobbying firm. These meetings, industry insiders say, represent only a fraction of the work a firm does in connecting its clients with politicians. They often serve merely as an introduction, with clients then able to follow up on issues discussed at the meetings or raise more sensitive matters, either through the agency or in some cases directly with politicians.

One firm, Arden Strategies, was able to secure more private client roundtables with Labour than any other, as far as openDemocracy can establish. The lobby shop, run by former Labour minister Jim Murphy, put its clients in a room with senior Labour figures on at least nine occasions – with politicians lobbied including Reeves, business and trade secretary Jonathan Reynolds and Starmer’s head of business engagement.

Unlike many firms, Arden doesn’t publish a general client list on the Public Relations and Communications Association register. But openDemocracy can reveal that the firm’s major clients include leading arms manufacturer Northrop Grumman and two of the UK’s largest power distribution companies, UK Power Networks and SGN.

Unlike in many other democracies, such as Canada, Germany and Scotland, voters have no right to know who is lobbying opposition politicians in Westminster. Only government ministers are required to regularly publish a list of any meetings they have with businesses, charities, think tanks and corporate lobbyists, along with a brief description of what was discussed. Details of government politicians’ meetings are not disclosed unless a specific Freedom of Information request is made asking about them, and the government may well decide to refuse to answer such requests.

This heavily flawed system is a major issue in a year such as this one, when the opposition’s election victory was almost a foregone conclusion and interest groups have been queuing up to influence its plans for government.

While firms do not need to declare which opposition politicians they’ve lobbied, many advertise their ability to secure access to the shadow frontbench. openDemocracy monitored the leading lobbying firms and found dozens of public references to meetings involving senior Labour politicians. In every instance where openDemocracy asked the lobbying firms and Labour which clients were present at these meetings, neither would provide any details.

Tim Bierley, campaigner at Global Justice Now, warned that Labour may be treating lobbyists as “independent experts” rather than people “responsible primarily for boosting their shareholders’ income”.

Bierley added: “On climate, trade and the economy, the interests of giant corporations are extremely different from the public’s – their outsized influence would blur any visions of progress under Labour.

“To provide a remotely adequate response to crises on multiple fronts, Labour needs to take on the vested interests of big corporations, not give them the pen to write policy.”

The City

Few interest groups carry as much sway with Labour as the representatives of the City of London …

Read in full at openDemocracy …

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