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Greasing The Wheels: Why The Economist Is So Wrong About Lobbying

18/08/2017 14:33 BST | Updated 18/08/2017 14:33 BST
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In the most recent issue of the Economist there is a typically thoughtful article about the impact that growing mistrust in institutions is having in the United States and across the western world. It makes important points about how public perceptions of business and government has changed, and what that might lead to. It's well worth a read. Partway through it makes an assertion that made me sit up and think: "spending on corporate lobbying, a signal that firms think politicians are corruptible, has risen faster than GDP".

That little sentence is actually rather odd. First, it casually links 'lobbying' with 'corruption'. Hang on a minute: as far as I am concerned lobbying involves better informing the political process, not corrupting it; making it better, not worse. Most sensible people worry about politicians becoming insulated from the realities of the world, and accept that lobbying, by business but also by campaign groups, trades unions, charities, even individuals, is what breaks down the walls of the ivory tower. In other words, we need to encourage lobbying, not denigrate it.

Secondly, the Economist appears to be saying that businesses, having tasted the benefits of 'corrupting' the political process are now doubling down, and lobbying more. I don't think that's right. What has happened in the last decade or so is that politicians have been more and more hostile to business. Once upon a time companies were listened to, treated as valuable partners in the policy-making process, and respected as the creators of wealth and employment. Nowadays they are routinely ignored by politicians who at best know little of the commercial world and at worst pander to the view that business folk are fat cats and that any company other than a small start up or a social enterprise is inherently evil.

With attitudes like these permeating even those parties that are meant to be the friends of enterprise, the Conservatives in the UK and the Republicans in America, is it any surprise that business is spending more on lobbying? They face a world of increasingly intrusive regulation and antipathy towards trade, immigration and openness, where short-term political point-scoring is celebrated and hard long-term decisions are deferred. All business wants is to be heard,for good sense to prevail and for decisions to be made for at least the medium-term. That's not corrupting the process. That's helping to make it work.