David Cameron said that he thought the next big political scandal after MPs' expenses would involve lobbying. Sadly, but one might say predictably, the next big political scandal has involved a party fundraiser attempting to encourage a company to give money in return for access to policymakers. The Sunday Times exposé into Peter Cruddas' claim that £250,000 can buy direct access to the very highest echelons of government has caused dismay, but not much by way of surprise.
It is clearly a deeply embarrassing story for the Conservative Party, and one which does nothing to diminish talk of privileged access and undue influence - with lobbyists once again being cited as peripheral, if not key, players. However yet again, this is a story of what happens when political greed meets a desire to buy influence and, just as it was when former Labour Ministers were caught in a newspaper sting offering to use their influence in exchange for money, no public affairs professionals are the cause of the scandal.
Lobbying is an essential part of the democratic process with an important relationship to freedom of speech. Professional lobbyists operate to a high standard of conduct, knowing the limits of influence the most appropriate and effective means of influencing policy. This is especially true of members of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, the Public Relations Consultants Association and the Association of Professional Political Consultants, all of whom have codes of conduct backed up rigorous disciplinary procedures. This is why today's editorial in The Times, which asserts that the affair mixes "the murky world of party funding and the even murkier world of lobbying into one unholy miasma" is sweeping and wide of the mark.
As industry responses are being drafted to send to the Cabinet Office on proposals to 'Introduce a Statutory Register of Lobbyists', the public affairs profession has an opportunity to bring the debate surrounding lobbyists centre stage. It gives us the opportunity to show the truth, namely that ethical, transparent lobbying positively informs policy.
So why are lobbyists getting a rough ride in a scandal about political party funding? Could it be that the average person, the so-called general public, does not understand the difference between genuine public affairs professionals and someone who is attempting to trade off their excellent contacts to make money, as appears to be the case in The Sunday Times sting? The CIPR condemns the notion that cash can buy a person influence - this is not what lobbying is about, but perhaps it is what party funding is about.
Nick Clegg said "donating to a political party, which should be a public good, has come to be viewed with suspicion and as a self interested act", but is it any wonder if cash can be used as a short cut to influence?
We will see these same politicians call for registration of lobbying but they are also wide of the mark. As I wrote back in October when the Adam Werrity story broke, the 'informal lobbying of Ministers by undisclosed interests through opaque networks of party backers, former ministers and political friends will not be eliminated by registering or regulating public affairs professionals'.
The resignation of Peter Cruddas is an opportunity to shine a light on the political funding process. Greater transparency can help make it a public good in the way that Nick Clegg rightly identifies, in the same way that transparency in lobbying is a means of making it an understood and accepted activity.
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