For Business and Lobby Groups - It's Time to Talk to the Voters

18/11/2011 10:17 GMT | Updated 17/01/2012 10:12 GMT

Anyone need to meet some politicians and influence government policy? If you and your company do, there are thousands of public affairs or lobbying companies in Britain touting their wares to business and interest groups, as being capable of arranging a quiet coffee with a minister, a meeting with a civil servant, or organising an invite-only dinner with MPs.

This private world of smoke-filled rooms and unlisted meetings is about to change, and business and campaign groups will have to find new ways to influence decision-making.

This means talking directly to voters, something not simple for many who have long focused all their efforts on those who are our governors, not the governed.

The reasons for this shift are complex, but inevitable. In the last few weeks the relationship between business and government in the UK has been irrevocably changed by a series of events that have lasting effects on the way companies and interest groups will need to seek influence in the future.

Most recently the Fox/Werrity affair has spurred on campaigners who wish to see lobbyists regulated through a publicly accountable register, something that has long been in place in the United States.

Such a register will make lobbying more transparent, but arguably harder, for lobby groups and companies. It will be much more difficult to develop and use those all-too-cozy relationships with elected leaders - both local and national - and the civil servants that advise them.

Once the public and the press know what meetings have taken place and who has attended them, the scrutiny of government decisions, and who and what may have influenced them, will be far harsher. This may be good for democracy and openness, but it will be of great concern for businesses, charities and interest groups who have a need for constant dialogue with decision makers often for the most genuine reasons.

So what will replace this cosy relationship of back-room meetings and unrecorded influence that has benefited business and politicians for so long?

The answer lies in direct-to-voter campaigns that have been a mainstay of the American political scene for generations.

In the 19th century American progressives devised the initiative and referenda scheme to curb the influence railroads and other powerful interests held over elected officials. They succeeded in giving power to the people, but also created 'issues-advocacy' campaigning, where voters are propositioned by business and interest groups to support or oppose a particular measure - and voters take the fight to the politicians and become the influencers of government decisions.

First, take referenda. The defeat of an "In or Out" referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, the First Minister of Scotland's refusal to bring forward a vote on Scottish independence early, and the removal of voter ballots on local planning applications from the Localism Bill may seem blows to those who see Britain's future as one of increased direct decision-making. Yet enshrined in law is the requirement for all future treaty changes made by the European Union to be put to the vote of the British electorate. There will be a referendum on Scottish Independence during the current term of this Scottish Parliament.

The Localism Bill contains within it the most influential element of direct democracy over planning issues that will shape the built environment in Britain for many years to come: the right for new neighbourhood plans to be put to a local ballot will mean developers must develop a new set of communication and persuasion skills.

These changes mean direct, voter decision making is now set to be a part of Britain's political makeup as never before. For construction companies, house builders and energy companies - particularly those seeking to build wind farms, often controversial in local communities - the changes enshrined in the Localism Bill are potentially very dangerous for business. Before, local development plans would be decided in council meetings, away from the voters, and quotas and location of new build homes and the acceptability of wind farms were pushed into these plans with barely a handful of voters ever noticing.

Now anti-wind farm and countryside campaigners will be able to push councils into holding local ballots on these plans, and businesses will need to react and deploy sophisticated campaign techniques - targeting local voters, building local coalitions and winning the argument in the voting booth. Business groups will soon realize that "issue" campaigns are very different from traditional candidate elections and very different skills are required to win those elections.

Second, consider the Government's e-Petition. In an attempt to prioritise parliamentary debates according to the expressed priorities of the voters the Government has created a mechanism that will constantly be influenced by special interest groups and campaigns. It's not surprising a vote on the return of capital punishment was front of the queue to gain parliamentary time, as was the EU referendum vote: supported by right-wing interest groups and powerful right wing newspapers - a business lobby group of their own - few of issues that have gained parliamentary time so far have been anything other than the work of special interests.

In the past, targeting a single MP to raise a Private Members' Bill or a whisper in the ear of a Minister to put forward an amendment to a Bill being debated was often enough. These techniques might not disappear, but increasingly companies and charities will have to lobby the public, gain thousands of signatures, build online groups and persuade the media in order to push forward their issue and change the law.

So if you need to bend the ear of a minister or gain agreement from a civil servant, it may now be advisable to talk to the voters first. The world of lobbying and influence will never be the same again. Time will tell whether these changes are for the better, but companies and interest groups need to realize the magnitude of these changes, and move quickly to reinvent their strategies for influencing government if they want their voices and views heard.