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Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Lobbying; Counter to democracy?

A debate ongoing in Germany (and long-running in the UK) concerns the influence exerted by lobby groups, often representing very small and narrow "special interests", have on government. The big question is, what does their influence really mean for democracy and the much vaunted "will of the people"? It is not a simple question for, as far as I can see from reading history, lobbying seems to have been a major part of the political system since mankind first started to organise their activities. Certainly, in the UK, arguably the oldest modern democracy, the power of various lobby groups and campaigners has always played a major role in government.

If one looks back to the Parliaments of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (questionably democratic to be sure), one soon sees that the land-owning gentry and the anti-catholic religious factions had powerful lobbies in Parliament. Beginning in the late 18th Century, the agricultural community lobbied hard for protectionist laws which became known as the Corn Laws. These kept the price of all grain crops high, by the simple expedient of imposing prohibitive import taxes on cheaper wheat, barley and maize anyone attempted to import from elsewhere. Of course, that impacted on the price of the working people's staple food - bread - and that kept industrial wages high. The industrialists and the Middle Classes lobbied strenuously for the repeal of these laws, and the 'beneficiaries' lobbied as hard to keep them. It took a series of poor harvests and finally the tragedy of the Irish potato famine to get these (and one or two other bits of pure 'protectionism') repealed.

The unintended consequence of the repeal, however, was that while the prices fell initially, so did production. Farmers simply could not afford the wages for producing a, then, labour intensive crop. Within ten years Britain was importing over 50% of the 'Corn' (a generic term then used to describe all the grain crops) it consumed. Ironically that put many of the very people the repeal was supposed to help, out of work, house and community ... In fact, it sparked the major movement out of the rural areas and into the cities as unskilled farm hands tried to find alternative employment. It also triggered a major move toward the Trade Union movement.

Today most people don't realise that lobbying is a built-in part of the political system, and always has been. The Labour Party has its origins in the desire of the Trade Union movement to have access to the organs of power in Westminster. Many of its MPs are 'sponsored' by Trade Unions, some by more than one. The exact form of the sponsorship varies, of course, and is subject to the 'Rules of the House', but they are not alone in this. Almost all MPs are 'sponsored' by one group or another. The Chambers of Industries and Commerce, the Trades Unions, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Childline, the Society for the Protection of Children, English Heritage, National Trust, the RSPCA and many others are all involved in various levels of lobbying for whatever 'cause' they promote.

The question really is, just how much influence do they have on the plethora of laws, regulations and other 'policy' decisions made in Whitehall and Westminster? Do they, as some, like Greenpeace, often claim, represent the 'majority opinion' of the public? Or is that simply another claim that is likely to go unchallenged because there is no way to measure it accurately? Even the much vaunted 'ballot box' of an election is now suspect, since in the last quarter century, if not longer, turnout seems to have been shrinking. Blair's much trumpeted 'landslide' was not such a triumph when taken as a percentage of the potential vote. The 'turnout' was low, just clearing 51%, which means his 'share' of the vote was considerably lower than the published figure which ignored the absentees.

There does need to be some element of lobbying in our system. How else can the interests of small groups, or matters of narrow interest be driven through the monolithic egos and the sheer weight of bureaucratic inertia that is any government today? The problem, as I see it today, is the plethora of passionately driven campaigns run as 'single issues' and whose promoters often refuse to see the ramifications and implications of their desired outcome.

Reaching back into history, one can point to the Abolition of Slavery, a laudable intention on every level. The only problem being that the Abolitionists didn't take any account of what the freed slaves were going to do, where they would live, or how they would feed, clothe and keep themselves. That oversight has left a legacy that still bedevils many countries. So too with the Corn Laws, and one could point to many more recent well intentioned, but ultimately very damaging, 'successes' by lobbying groups, such as the 'fuel price escalator' which has driven up fuel prices, but not driven consumption down, and pushed up the prices of almost everything else because of the rising cost of transport.

It is easy to form the impression that our elected representatives in Parliament live in an environment now where they don't appreciate the difference between what 'The Party' and the various lobby groups who brief them say, and the reality of the lives of the people bearing the impact of all these wonderful ideas. I don't think we can change the nature of lobbying a great deal, but I think we can make it much more transparent and compel our MPs to acknowledge the very real problems they cause when they impose something a lobby group want. It will be an interesting debate - and I am not sure the solution will ever be found.

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