London's reputation launderers» 'Conspiracy-theorists' hit Scotland»  America suffers from crony-capitalism»  UK's lobbying register falls (£100,000s) short.


London's reputation launderers

This weekend we learned that one of London’s top-end lobbying firms, Quiller, has been on a multi-year £60,000-a-month retainer to lobby for the United Arab Emirates. This helps to explain how it can afford its very swish offices, which are currently nestled beside the Ritz in Mayfair and before that were a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.

According to a Mail on Sunday investigation, Quiller was contracted 'to promote and achieve the foreign policy objectives of the UAE'. Leaked emails handed to the paper, however, reveal the tactics – all of which were to be ‘carried out in strict confidence’ – employed by the firm for its paymasters.

The emails show, for example, that Quiller successfully targeted top British newspapers and BBC journalists, leading to naked attacks on UAE’s arch-rival Qatar, some accusing it of being a haven for terrorists. One key member of Quiller’s staff admitted in an email that he had kept the UAE's involvement secret when talking to a journalist. The firm focused another journalist's briefing on UAE’s opposition, especially London-based campaigners against human rights abuses.

The leaked documents give us rare insight into what is widely understood: that some of London’s top ‘reputation management’ firms are discretely lobbying for overseas countries, some with dubious records on human rights. And that this is where the big money is to be made, where multi-million pound PR campaigns can be written off as a ‘negligible rounding error in their national budgets’, as former FT journalist Tim Burt puts it.

These aren’t rogue PRs doing the reputation laundering, either. Quiller is as well-connected and establishment as they get. It is part-owned by Lord Chadlington, the Conservative branch chairman in Cameron's constituency of Witney, and Cameron’s neighbour. The UAE's 'senior counsel' in Britain when the contract started in 2009 was Quiller co-founder Jonathan (now Lord) Hill, the former education minister and Leader of the House of Lords, who was chosen by Cameron to be Britain's EU Commissioner in charge of financial stability. Quiller has also recently employed: George (now Lord) Bridges and current parliamentary secretary for the UK Cabinet Office; Sean Worth, a former special adviser to David Cameron; and Stephen Parkinson a former SpAd to home secretary, Theresa May.

After reading the investigation, the Mail on Sunday’s headline didn’t seem too wide of the mark: ‘Cameron and the Arab Sheiks' web of influence that infiltrated Britain: The shadowy nexus of PM's cronies that secretively lobbied for Middle East paymasters.'

'Conspiracy-theorists' hit Scotland

Meanwhile, in the Scottish press on Sunday we – that is Spinwatch, Unlock Democracy and our partners, the Electoral Reform Society Scotland – were dubbed ‘London-centric conspiracy theorists’ for suggesting that a light should be shone on the activities of lobbyists.

Scottish lobbyist, John Downie, made the comments in response to a short report we published a week earlier that was covered by the Sunday Herald (Revealed: new dossier untangles the shadowy world of political lobbying in Scotland). The report, Holyrood Exposed, is a guide to lobbying in Scotland. It takes you on a tour around some of the offices of the lobbyists in Edinburgh, all of whom are intent on influencing the decisions of the Scottish government. Scotland, if not already, should be aware of their presence. As lobbyists say, the most effective lobbying is that which goes unnoticed.

Downie, however, is insistent that Scottish politics is ‘a completely different ball game’. Echoing many Scottish politicians, he says the country doesn’t need ‘unelected’ Westminster-based lobbyists (that's us) ‘telling us how Scottish democracy should be run’.

Which pretty much makes our point. The report is as much a warning from Westminster.

London-based firms now see Holyrood and its increasing power as a ‘lobbyists dream’. ‘This is an incredibly exciting time for Scottish politics and public affairs [aka lobbying],’ says lobbying agency PLMR, which promises its clients to ‘be here on the ground and ready to make the most of it’. One of the best connected – and most discreet – of Edinburgh’s lobbying agencies, Charlotte Street Partners, was co-founded by Roland Rudd, one of London’s most powerful PR people. The firm is also full of ex-SNP advisers, who have passed through the revolving door into lobbying.

Participation and democracy are thriving in Scotland. May it remain so and not be tarnished in the same way that Westminster has with lobbying scandals and accusations of cronyism.

There are some things that governments can do to protect democracy, though. One of which is to allow the public to see with whom it is meeting and what they are discussing. This is done through a simple, public register of lobbyists.

The Scottish government is just now setting out its plans for a register. So far, it has agreed with the principle of letting people see who it is having a quiet word with, but the plans it has set out are so weak they won't achieve it.

Downie appears similarly conflicted. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, where Downie works, is 'not opposed to having more transparency in lobbying,' he confirms. Yet Downie has called the proposed register of lobbyists ‘undemocratic’ and worse, ‘immoral‘.

So, which is it?

America suffers from crony-capitalism

Over in US, where at last count just 9% of Americans said they had confidence in their legislators, a new study argues that lobbying is not only hurting democracy, but harming the American economy.

According to the report by the very dry-sounding Committee on Economic Development, the US economy is increasingly represented by crony capitalism and not competitive capitalism. Crony capitalism, the report details, leads to “rent-seeking through subsidies or taxes that benefit vested interests at the expense of others, rather than the pursuit of profit through socially and economically productive behavior”.

It lays the blame at the door of lobbyists and privately funded elections.

This is how it works: companies lobby more, create closer relationships through revolving doors and embed themselves in Washington’s social life. In turn, those companies that are embedded get more and more favors, pushing out the smaller companies, and rewarding cronyism instead of innovation.

Public financing of elections is one answer, it says. If that sounds like a far off dream in American politics, the report cites the system that has been operational in New York since 2009, where small donor contributions are matched in multiples by a state fund.

We’re often tempted to point (and laugh) at everything that is wrong in American politics. But we would do well to learn from them. American’s may seem powerless to stop the flow of money into politics, but at least they can see who is influencing their politicians (to a large extent, it’s not a perfect system). They have a register of lobbyists that means they can see who is bending the ear of government. Here in the UK we have a pretend register that does nothing to open lobbying up to scrutiny. They know they have a problem. We suffer from complacency, an unwillingness to admit our vulnerability to corruption.

UK's lobbying register falls (£100,000s) short

Finally, while we’re on the subject of the UK’s bogus register of lobbyists, the accounts for the Office of the Registrar have just been published. They reveal that the register cost over £264,000 to run last year (that would be a pretty good deal if the register actually did its job). However, the government decided to make the industry pay for the operational costs of the register and, so far, this has brought in a paltry £2,463 in registration fees, or less than a hundreth of what the thing cost.

They were warned. Making lobbyists pay for behaving transparently is in the first instance wrong-headed: knowing who is lobbying whom and for what is public interest stuff and so should be publicly funded. Putting a financial barrier on lobbying transparency also penalises smaller operators. But most importantly, the government purposely designed a register to capture a tiny fraction of lobbyists in the UK: the sums were never going to add up.

The UK’s register was built expressly to keep the vast majority of the government's interactions with lobbyists secret. What the accounts reveal is that, in this, it has been entirely successful.