THE BLOG

In Defence of Lobbyists - and Owen Smith

25/07/2016 17:09 | Updated 25 July 2016
Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

I have a confession to make. One that apparently means I am unfit to lead the Labour Party and/or I am the spawn of Satan (delete as appropriate). I am a lobbyist. What's worse, I am proud to be a lobbyist. And I want to say a few things about my fellow lobbyist, Owen Smith.

Years ago I worked in the House of Commons. As the Clerk of the Transport Committee and of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee I was lobbied myself, and witnessed at first hand the benefit of hearing from a range of organisations with different perspectives, experiences and opinions. In the years since, as a corporate communications adviser, it has become even clearer to me that the process through which private businesses, trade bodies, unions, pressure groups and individuals talk to decision-makers nearly always leads to more informed, rounded and simply better decisions.

Most sensible people know and understand this. Every now and then lobbyists face their turn as very bad things to be criticised by politicians and the media, usually when politicians and the media have been caught out themselves. But because lobbying is actually a good thing, a necessary thing in any functioning democracy, the spotlight usually passes quickly and we all get on with the job.

So when elements of the Labour Party recently started to attack Smith ‎because he used to be a lobbyist my first reaction was to shrug. All part of the fun and games of politics, particularly in the unpleasant and polarised world of Britain's left-wingers. But I can't hold it in any longer. The vitriol is ludicrous, of course, but it is also daft and damaging, and it deserves a response.

The worst of Smith's offences is seemingly that he once worked for Big Pharma, and, as everybody knows, Big Pharma is shadowy and secretive. Er, really? Anyone with any knowledge of the ABPI Code knows that when Smith worked for Pfizer he did so within strict constraints; and, by the way, the same limits do not apply to pressure groups or trade unions. Moreover, the pharmaceutical sector is a British success story, creating the kind of high skilled jobs cherished by Labour and the unions, and employing many potential party supporters. Slagging off the whole industry, implicitly or explicitly, is clearly not a great idea - not that this will stop the student pols now running Labour.

Big Pharma is of course a subset of Big Business, and as friends of Corbyn like Paul Flynn have told us many, many times, lobbying by big business has a uniquely malign impact on policy-making. This is based on an understanding of the world in which there are good organisations (pressure groups, small businesses, charities and unions) and bad ones (trade associations and larger corporations), and so there is good and bad lobbying. I once had the pleasure of telling the new Shadow Leader of the House to his face that this is nonsense: the important thing is to have balanced lobbying, where all sides get to make their case and allow decision-makers to decide. There is no distinction in reality between Unite and Pfizer. Each has a view and an axe to grind. Let politicians decide how convincing each case is.

If you take this view of the world you start to see the criticism of Smith as more than just misplaced: it is deeply hypocritical. The Labour Party was founded, has as its very raison d'etre, to act on behalf of a vested interest, namely the trade unions. It is, and it has always been, a lobby group. Under Corbyn's leadership that is even more true than before: the Party has abandoned its Blairite pretensions to be a progressive broad church and is now pretty much exclusively working on behalf of the interests of the unions. Criticising Smith for being a lobbyist is an egregious example of the pot calling the kettle black.

So the abuse heaped on Smith for being a Big Pharma lobbyist is ridiculous. But perhaps there is a rational criticism of him lurking in there, namely that by moving smoothly from the world of lobbying into politics, having spent his whole adult life in the Westminster village, Smith lacks experience of the 'real world'. I'm conflicted about this point: first, you could argue that no one person's career and life is ever varied enough to make them truly rounded; and second, I haven't exactly spent ages outside the village myself. But it is reasonable to ask whether careers spent exclusively in think tanks, journalism, public affairs firms, and research departments and as special advisers really prepare our politicians to make difficult political, social, economic and commercial decisions. Leading lights of a few decades ago seemed to have longer and more diverse experience. Shouldn't we try to recreate those days?

Possibly. The problem is that Smith is far from being alone in having had limited career experience. His rival, Corbyn, has basically had two jobs, arguably both within the village: as a trade union organiser and as an MP. David Cameron glided effortlessly from SPADery to public affairs to MP to PM. If we rule out people with this background who is there left? And anyway, who would decide which professions are okay, and which are not? One proposal might be to force people to have a 'proper' career by raising the age at which people can first stand to become an MP - but given the chronic problems caused by politicians pandering to elderly voters, and by the alienation of younger voters, returning to an age of septuagenarian leaders doesn't sound like a great idea. So we are stuck with what we've got.

That, then, means a return to basic principles. Let's forget about the 'life stories' of our potential leaders, and let's not criticise (or laud) them for the jobs they did before entering politics. Let's instead judge them on more basic criteria: are they capable, are they trustworthy, what do they believe in? What do they stand for? And can they actually lead effectively? Those are the real questions to be asked about any potential party leader, including the former lobbyist Owen Smith.

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