Opposition lobbying reform proposals hit the wrong targets, and don’t go far enough

It is never dull when you find yourself the target of a manifesto pledge. The Guardian reporting on December 4th that “the Institute of Economic Affairs, has been specifically named by Labour as an example of a thinktank that would be affected by its new policy”. The policy in question being one in their manifesto, replacing and extending current rules on lobbying registration to cover all think tanks. Labour are not alone in this, the Liberal Democrats and Greens also wish to change lobbying rules, although haven’t (yet) been quite so personal about it.

Setting aside that the piece is by David Pegg, who seems to have something of an obsession with demonising the IEA; and quoting Shadow Cabinet Minister Jon Trickett MP, who only last year co-ordinated a polemical but failed complaint against us with the Guardian and Greenpeace, this is a really interesting area of regulation where if anything they’ve allowed a desire to get us, to let them miss the big picture and deliver more effective reforms.

Lobbying regulation in the UK is a relatively recent development. Following a series of ‘lobbying scandals’ in the prior two decades, the Lobbying Act 2014 established the Lobbying Register and Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists (ORCL) to run it. While not popular, it’s a relatively simple system compared to some; if you are a consultant who sells services as a commercial activity in order to communicate with Ministers or the highest levels of the civil service, you must register, including your company’s details, senior staff and clients. Separately there is a voluntary register run by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), covering a wider range of lobbyists accountable to a code of conduct, offering more basic but also more accessible information. On the other side, Ministers publish transparency data in the form of their meetings with external organisations, gifts, hospitality and overseas travel on a quarterly basis. There is then already some transparency in how lobbying happens, but narrowly targeted. Labour, the Greens, and the Liberal Democrats believe regulation should be tougher and broader in scope.

Lobbying itself, despite the belief of some activists that it is some kind of ‘dark magic’ that undermines democracy, is considered by legislators to be a public good. It enables them to quickly access expert opinion via mediums who understand their constraints and can communicate in their language. Political consultants are advocates – like lawyers, but operating in the court of public opinion where the politicians are judges and the public are the jury. If you are a business about to be hit by a new regulation you usually don’t have either the time to communicate your concerns, or the knowledge to know where and how to communicate it so that your views will matter. If you are a member of the public who wants that regulation to happen, you are buying lobbying expertise when you donate to an NGO group like Greenpeace to make that case for you in the most effective way. If you are a decision-maker you want the person talking to you to get to the point: what do you want to change, and why?

After that, it is for the elected politician to decide which of the groups has the better case, as they see it, and how the law should then be changed, with advice from the civil service (which has its own interests and biases – see public choice theory). It is then for the elected Parliament to agree or disagree that the change is needed by passing legislation. Lobbying happens across that process, by multiple individuals, groups and political actors (not least lobbying each other), and is not, as is commonly misunderstood (in no small part due to effective disinformation campaigning by NGO lobbyists and campaigning journalists) the sole preserve of the professional consultants. It is the politicians who make the decisions, including with whom to meet, and what to declare about it, not lobbyists. Sensible politicians meet multiple groups with different points of view.

The role of think tanks in that mix has been debated fiercely in the last four years, not least the role of the IEA as a high-profile example. Think tanks, charitable or not, engage in ‘thought leadership’. They provide public policy ideas that others then use, sometimes to make their own ideas better, or to add directly into their campaigns and manifestos. But that is also true of the output of university departments, newspapers editorials, trade union briefing papers, or BBC documentaries about unhappy fish. Think tanks directly engage with politicians to share their ideas, or invite politicians to debates and speaker meetings to ask them questions. But that is also true of student societies, popular TV debate shows, talk radio phone-ins and Mumsnet. When thought leadership is or is not lobbying, when it is unethical, and when it should be regulated on parity with other forms of influence, are not easy questions to answer, and very difficult to do if only looking at the question through the prejudicial bias of disagreeing with high profile thought leaders like the IEA.

The Labour proposal is this:

We will free the voices of civil society by repealing the Lobbying Act 2014 and overhauling the rules that govern corporate lobbying. We will introduce a lobbying register covering both in-house lobbyists and think tanks and extending to contacts made with all senior government employees, not just ministers.”

Despite the language of repeal, is an extension of the current system, targeting only certain groups. It is more bureaucracy, but not obviously more effective bureaucracy. In respect of those being lobbied I happen to agree with Labour. If this is a regulated activity it is not sensible to restrict declarable contact to only Permanent Sectaries and Ministers. Much lobbying happens at the level of the relevant middle management expert within the civil service, and with non-Ministerial Parliamentarians.

I also partially agree with the Liberal Democrats on their point: “Strengthen and expand the lobbying register and ban MPs from accepting paid lobbying work.”

Neither MPs nor peers, notably a considerable number of Liberal Democrat peers should be taking both public money to be legislators while taking private money to influence legislation. This, despite rules covering declarations of interest, creates a strong potential for conflicts of interest, or a strong public perception of the same that undermines public confidence in Parliament. No doubt the orange team only omitted their substantial unelected taxpayer funded lobbying caucus from this proposal for the sake of brevity.

The Greens have two proposals, one focused on the EU on the assumption the UK will still be in it, and the other: “Strengthen the transparency rules on recording political lobbying and make the work of Think Tanks more transparent too, by establishing a distinct legal entity for political foundations which conduct policy research and political education.”

This one is interesting, we have also looked at the idea that ‘advancing debate or dialogue for the public benefit’ should be a distinct public benefit test to ‘advancing education’, which might then help the Charity Commission with its current headache that it wishes to try and regulate think tanks differently to other educational bodies engaging in public policy debates. We are not sure they should, but that is one way of doing it, that might then encourage more public debate.

I am unaware of any current proposals from the Conservatives, SNP or other parties in this area, at least in the context of manifestos. However, quite a lot of this misses the fundamental point of the issue, notably about the lobbying scandals the regulations seek to avoid, which is that while very few of them actually involve paid lobbyists (check if you don’t believe this), all of them involve politicians (or much more rarely civil servants). There is then quite a simple solution to the issue of lobbying transparency, and that is for those being lobbied to publish all their non-sensitive meetings (meaning not constituency casework or national security). This doesn’t necessarily require legislation, just self-regulation by Parliament and Ministerial direction to Departments, perhaps to an agreed common standard on an open source platform.

Those with a strong view on transparency should be able to add more detail to that database as suits including meeting notes if they wish, such as who the lobbyist is representing (their clients or who funds them) and what was discussed. This would cover all lobbyist and thought leadership meetings, consultant, in-house, NGO campaigns, trade unions, think tanks, etc. without requiring tortured definition of what is and is not a lobbyist, which so far at least has only shown the question cannot be addressed without bias. The Coalition Government didn’t go far enough for some campaigners in 2014, the left-wing Opposition parties now seem to believe think tanks matter while ignoring those groups lobbying to make only think tanks matter, rather than themselves.

The proposed approach has one downside: it increases bureaucracy and administrative costs for politicians and civil servants. That though carries the upside of radically reducing it for everyone else. This surely then is the most economically efficient way of achieving the same end goal, while incentivising the politicians to design a system that is not overly burdensome. It is I think unusual for politicians to face the consequences of their own good intentions so starkly, but it is a more valuable exercise in regulatory discipline for that.

New regulation should only follow if politicians demonstrate a lack of compliance with their own high standards, self-regulation should be shown to fail before reaching for the statute book. I’m sure for example that Jon Trickett would wish to imminently publish both details of any meetings he had with the Guardian and Greenpeace prior to writing a complaint for them about us, any response received, and any follow-ups such that the public might be reassured he consulted widely, and was not improperly lobbied to seek these rule changes in the manifesto.

We, of course, would be delighted to meet with any party to discuss these ideas, or others, for meaningful unbiased transparency with less wasteful bureaucracy, to further improve public confidence in the democratic process and our much-loved politicians.


Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer, Company Secretary and Energy Analyst at the IEA. Andy is responsible for developing our people, all operations, and managing the reputation of the IEA, including for example over-turning the Charity Commission’s unlawful attempt to ban one of the IEA’s publications, and dealing with failed attempt to smear the organisation by activists at the same time. When not leading operations, Andy writes and comments on free market issues around energy and climate change, and occasionally general commentary. He was previously the Head of UK public affairs for the world’s largest chemical company and green energy advisor to the UK’s largest company. He has over 25 years of experience in strategic communications and the operations that support them in the business and think tank worlds.