Monday, 12 September 2011

PR Week Soap Box

In his usual uncompromising style Simon Jenkins suggested recently that lobbyists (a term he uses very loosely) are enjoying a fine old time under the coalition government. His argument is that the very nature of coalition politics makes it easier for special interest groups to play one part of the government off against another. To back his assertion he cites recent policy u-turns (forestry, NHS, housing) or continued concessions to big spending lobbies (high speed rail, Olympics, renewable energy) as examples of how organised groups can manipulate naive and risk averse coalition ministers.

I agree with this. A well constructed, strategically communicated argument has more chance of progressing under a two-party coalition than it would under a government with a thumping majority. If Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair did not want to listen, then there was little one could do to change that. The situation is very different now with two parties in government whose core philosophies are so diametrically opposed, it is easier to identify and tap into a vein of political support somewhere within the coalition.

However, a major constraint for lobby groups is the fact that the government has no money to fund new and interesting policy ideas. This was not a problem before 2010 when the Labour government seemingly put money into every idea it was presented with, no matter how barmy. Lobbyists now have to be far more creative - proposing policy solutions that do not have price tags attached to them.

Where I differ with Jenkins is his implication that all lobbying is somehow bad; Ministers should be their own masters - piloting the direction of policy, able to swat away the irritating special interest groups that are currently so effective at forcing a change of course. On the contrary I see "lobbying" - again in the widest sense - as a fundamental right in a democratic society. Indeed we would be all the poorer if Minister's ploughed on regardless of outside voices - Poll Tax anyone?

Philip Snape, MD, PSA Communications.

This article first appeared in PR week 02.09.11

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