Bold reforms are needed to tackle lobbying by the rich and powerful

'No longer can we tolerate a system in which getting your way in Westminster is based not on what you know, but on who you know'


Jon Trickett is Labour MP for Hemsworth

The power of wealth in Britain is everywhere to be seen. It’s how Britain’s ruling class continues to rule. Especially in Westminster and Whitehall. They have penetrated almost all parts of the British state. More often than not, it is the views of a handful of rich individuals and powerful mega-corporations which count rather than the opinion of millions of voters. In a democracy it ought to be the other way round.  

One of the ways in which wealth operates in the corridors of power, the discreet eating houses, the clubs and posh meeting rooms in central London clubs, is through lobbying. 

It has been ten years since the Lobbying Act was passed into law.  Named the ‘gagging bill’ it had light touch regulation of corporate lobbying and its heavy handed campaign restrictions on trade unions, charities and community organisations. 

Last week the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs select committee published a review of the bill. It is more of a timid whisper than the necessary roar. But, then, like so much in Westminster, it’s hard to criticise since their remit is tightly limited.

Limited by the rules, and in light of the fact that the government has ruled out changes to the legislation, the select committee focussed on increasing and expanding the transparency of government ministers and senior officials. The members declared that the rules, “risk negating the validity of the whole exercise”. 

Lobbying per se isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, a constituent lobbying their MP for example is part of a healthy democracy. But there is real danger arising from the lobbying which  is carried out by vested, monied interests, behind closed doors.

That is why I stand by my comments in parliament at the time the Bill was debated.  Unfortunately, a decade on, they still ring true today:

This legislation runs contrary to the spirit of the times in which we live. It permits lobbying by the rich and powerful to continue in an unregulated way and in the shadows, while at the same time it seeks to silence wider civic society. Big tobacco’s voice will still be heard in the seats of power, while the voices of cancer activists will not. The voice of arms manufacturers will be heard, but not that of the Royal British Legion. The voice of private medicine will be heard, but not the unions representing nurses and hospital cleaners. The tax avoidance industry will be heard, but not the tax justice campaign.

And so we see, for example, David Cameron lobbying for Greensill Capital after leaving 10 Downing Street. How did he do it? He texted his mates in government who he once led. And what about the PPE contracts handed out during the pandemic? Contracts went to Tory donors, people who texted ministers seeking contracts, and even to contractors who a minister might have met in the pub or on the golf course. More recently, the Tory MP Scott Benton was filmed offering to lobby ministers for payment.

In 2014 when the lobbying act became law there was already a widespread sense of alienation from politics, but this has only intensified in the last ten years. The disillusionment people feel partly stems from a feeling that Britain is governed by a closed, gilded circle at the top which excludes the millions of hard-working people who play by the rules but who are struggling to get by.

Indeed, we have seen the richest few hundred people increase their wealth by over £500 billion since the financial crash. But workers have seen their pay stagnate or fall, their public services hollowed out and the cost of living skyrocket. 

The only way to tackle big money and vested interests undermining our democracy is to bring in sweeping political reform. We need bolder rules on lobbying and associated activity such as the revolving door in and out of Whitehall, procurement misuse, APPGs and access to parliament

We need a democratic revolution to tackle the underlying asymmetry of power between the fusion of the ruling economic and political elites on the one hand  and the wider subdued population on the other.

As I have said before, Labour must make the case for a fundamental transformation in Britain’s political institutions. It should begin with a few key proposals: 

  • Shifting the boundary between the market and a renewed public sphere.
  • Breaking the grip which the privileged Few has on our public institutions.
  • Extending the franchise, reviewing how and where we vote, to ensure equality. 
  • Extending democratic control to all the corners of our economy, including the boardrooms of large corporations.
  • Replacing the House of Lords and ensuring genuinely accountable democracy.
  • Ending the over centralised character of our state, which leaves it insulated from the views of the majority of our citizens.

Lobbying scandals, such as Cameron and Greensill, are often used for political point scoring rather than to fuel change. And if we do not act to transform political power, we cannot ensure economic justice.

The next Labour government must act differently to those which have come before it. For too long governments have talked a good game on cleaning up our politics, but when push comes to shove they have only tinkered around the edges. No longer can we tolerate a system in which getting your way in Westminster is based not on what you know, but on who you know.

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