What is lobbying?

You’ve heard of lobbying scandals, of the influence of big business on government, of the role of money in politics. But what actually is lobbying, how does it work and what should Scotland do about it?

What is lobbying?

In England in the late 17th century, the House of Commons became more powerful in relation to the House of Lords. The Lords – the landed aristocracy – had many interests they wanted to pursue but they weren’t in the House of Commons. But they could wait outside in the lobby where they could talk to politicians on the way in and out of the chamber. They became known as ‘lobbyers’

Lobbying it is about getting access to powerful people

But the term as we know it now is only about 200 years old and comes from America. But the idea is exactly the same – wait in the lobby outside the debating chamber, grab politicians and try and persuade them to make certain decisions. Lobbyers became lobbyists and the idea of lobbying politicians was born, meaning

To try and persuade them to do what you want

But if it started off as a simple process of trying to influence it quickly became more than that. In the early 20th century the new breed of advertising executives realised that if they could make consumers could buy certain products, they could make politicians ‘buy’ certain policies. Advertising and influencing merged into what became known as Public Relations and lobbying became big business. It is now one of the most important things in deciding what politicians do.

And lobbyists spend billions of dollars on it every year

What does lobbying involve?

Most people think of lobbying in terms of talking to politicians, and this is still very important. But sometimes it isn’t the politician you want to talk to – sometimes it is an adviser, or a civil servant, or a party researcher. Basically the key to lobbying trying to ‘bribe’, ‘threaten’ or otherwise ‘twist the arm’ of whomever you think can help to get you what you want.

Lobbying is not just talking to politicians

And it’s not just talking. When ‘lobbying’ met ‘advertising’ the process became professionalised. It is a long time since lobbying was just a conversation with decision-makers and it now involves an very wide range of activities – from paying for expensive economic impact assessments, producing artists impression of proposed developments, commissioning opinion polls, making promotional films and even making direct financial contributions to politicians and political parties.

It includes everything you prepare to try and persuade them

But it goes further even than that because lobbying is about networks and insider info. A lot of lobbying is done by professional lobbying companies and they invest a lot in recruiting former insiders and in developing personal relationships with decision-makers. Lobbying isn’t just about having good arguments, it’s about having the right relationships.

And it relies heavily on personal relationships

Does lobbying make a difference?

One of the arguments that lobbyists and politicians often make is that there doesn’t need to be stronger lobbying regulations because politicians aren’t really influenced by it. The politicians like to believe they ‘see through’ lobbying and the lobbyists are more than happy to go along with it. But it isn’t true – if you doubt whether lobbying works, remember this:

Clever people wouldn’t spend billions of pounds if it didn’t work

But they really do spend billions and it really does work. Time and time again we have learned about lobbying scandals in which the line between insider contacts and policy decisions is quite clear. And the influence is wider than that – lobbyists are often closely linked with the civil servants at the stage at which legislation and policy is first developed. By the time it reaches the democratic process lobbying can already have had major effects.

Lobbying often shapes policy before politicians even see it

And it goes beyond even that – lobbying isn’t only about changing individual policies but also to change the culture of politics. Lobbyists spend money on experts who devise catchphrases and concepts which they then encourage politicians to absorb and use. This means that lobbying changes the ways politicians see policy and how they talk about their priorities. An enormous amount of the way politicians think and talk has been shaped by the involvement of lobbyists.

Lobbying changes the culture of politics itself

So what do we do?

Lobbying is not always bad and in one way or another democracy needs a way for people to talk to and inform politicians. After all, a small social group or community campaign trying to fight for a good cause by talking to a politicians is technically lobbying. We can’t get rid of lobbying altogether.

Influencing politicians is part of the democratic process

The point is that not all lobbying is equal. Some groups can spend enormous amounts of money and draw on incredibly privileged insider access – and in reality it does more than simply tip the field in their advantage. The fastest way to do something about this is to have full disclosure of lobbying contact – not just politicians, civil servants, not just face to face contact, all activity related to the campaign, not just who and when, how much spent and on what?

Let everyone see how powerful lobbyists are with full disclosure

Another important step is to remove the insider access by clamping down on the ‘revolving door’. This is the practice where commercial interests are seconded into government to formulate policy and politicians, advisers and civil servants and advisers move straight into lucrative jobs where their insider knowledge gives an unfair advantage. In fact many civil servants and politicians have these jobs even while still in office.

End the revolving door – make public service work in the public interest

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