Mal Fletcher
Professional Politics - Rule by Lobby Group?

'The difference between a politician and a statesman,' said James Freeman Clarke, 'is that a politician thinks of the next election, while a statesman thinks of the next generation.'

Yesterday, ministers within the British government announced that they'd decided not to legislate for plain packaging for tobacco products. The legislation had long been promised in an effort to discourage young people from taking up smoking.

In Great Britain, 10 million adults smoke cigarettes, representing 21 percent of men and 19 percent of women. Two-thirds of smokers start before the age of 18. This is according to Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a health charity established by the Royal College of Physicians.

The same groups says that smoking causes around 80 percent of deaths from lung cancer and approximately 80 percent of deaths from bronchitis and emphysema. Meanwhile, 17 percent of deaths from heart disease are linked to smoking as are more than a quarter of cancer deaths.

The Australian government was the first to introduce plain packaging for tobacco products. It maintains that it is too early to tell exactly how many lives will be saved as a result - that may take another three or more years.

Yet one thing is certain: when the idea was first mooted in Australia it received widespread support - as it did in the UK. Now, however, the British government is back pedalling and there appears to be no good reason why.

Today, it has emerged that a London-based lobbying consultancy has been advising Philip Morris Ltd, the world's largest tobacco company, on how to argue against such moves.

Normally, there would be nothing particularly newsworthy in this. Lobby companies can advise whomever they wish in an open market. However this particular company, CTF, is run by the Conservative Party's chief election strategist Lynton Crosby.

This is the man paid a large retainer by the Conservative Party to help them win the next election. Although Mr Crosby is retained by the Tory Party, not the government, there is surely a conflict of interest for him here.

Downing Street has admitted that he attends meetings there and at least a percentage of these must surely involve questions of policy. Crosby has already advised David Cameron to ditch policies that are marginal in their appeal. Questions will be asked as to whether the legislation on tobacco packaging might be one of these.

There will also be questions about David Cameron's judgement in appointing close advisers.

The Prime Minister still faces nagging queries about the 2010 appointment of Andy Coulson as his director of communications and, at the time, his highest paid special advisor. Mr Coulson faces criminal charges relating to phone hacking during his tenure as editor of the now defunct News of the World newspaper.

Ours is the age of professional politics, where MPs are often groomed for office almost from the time they leave university - if not before. As fresh young graduates they take up jobs as researchers with political think tanks or as dogs-bodies working for older MPs.

Few of today's top-level MPs have any appreciable professional experience outside the world of politics. Indeed, some have hardly ventured much beyond the bubble of Westminster itself, except perhaps to run for election and to maintain the appearance of local representation.

Arguably, this gives rise to political careers that are just that - carefully mapped-out strategies for a life-long pursuit of power or, at the very least, a comfortable life of relative privilege, with some good works thrown in.

This may sound entirely too cynical and it may be just that - if we're considering the largely anonymous journeymen MPs who simply get on with the job at hand, doing their best for their electorates.

For the real power players, though, such a description is often apt.

In their cloistered world, operating under the harshest media spotlight of any generation, professional politicos are all too susceptible to the charms and ready-made policy packages of professional lobbyists.

Many of the more prominent lobby groups are made up of people whose careers have followed similar trajectories to those of MPs. At times, those career paths have crossed and closer relationships have formed.

Former MPs often become consultants to lobby groups, offering them behind-the-scenes access to power players, or at least insights into how governments think. In some cases, MPs take these paid roles even before they retire from Parliamentary life, a practice that has been revealed time and again by newspaper sting operations.

By making themselves relatively accessible to lobby organisations, busy MPs and ministers in particular are able to rationalise their lack of contact with men and women in the street. They are, the thinking goes, taking account of the widest possible range of views on issues by entertaining a variety of lobby representations.

Almost imperceptibly, then, a government that is open to lobbyists can become a government that is, in effect, ruled by lobbyists. Politicos sometimes mistake debates among lobbyists as wider community discussions, a convenient and time-saving shortcut when it comes to shaping policy.

When that happens, government becomes about closed elites taking advice from unrepresentative interest groups, the views of which are at best single-minded and at worst short-sighted.

In a way, the latter epithet is of little concern to modern politicians, as each successive government is in power for a very short period before the next election cycle begins - at least in the media.

For this reason, it often seems unlikely that we'll get quality decisions on long-term issues, such as climate change, from governments whose focus is on what will sustain their popular support until re-election.

Governments these days are in an almost constant state of electioneering. As a result - though this is never admitted - far-sighted community benefit is often replaced by immediate political expediency as a primary political goal.

The British government's recent deliberations on the marriage issues provide a case in point. David Cameron promised a community-wide debate on the issue - though, it must be said, no such debate had been sought by the majority of the electorate before the last election. Marriage was not an issue in the election.

In the end, however, the Prime Minister treated the issue of redefining marriage as if it were a foregone conclusion. He behaved as if the argument was decided before it began and the conclusion should be seen as self-evident.

From their voting on the issue, it seems that many other MPs shared this view - though some took much more convincing than others and a sizeable minority remain opposed.

This attitude was doubtless informed by the tireless and disciplined work of gay lobbyists and their supporters over the past two decades. Whatever one's views on the issue, one has to admire their persistence and strategic thinking.

In the end, their lobbying managed to change even the terminology of the debate. What was once intended to be a discussion about the shape of marriage and family became more narrowly defined as a 'struggle' for 'equal marriage'.

Readers will take different sides on this divisive issue, but whatever the view there is, I suggest, a good case for the argument that professional lobbyists of all persuasions often have too easy access to power.

Their carefully constructed opinion polls and other devices are given too much credence. Lobbyists, like priests of old, are too often thought to be above question in areas where they claim to have special insight.

Lobby groups are an inevitable consequence of liberal democracy. If the many are to be ruled by the very few, those few must be confronted with the divergent views of their constituencies.

Lobbying has been an integral part of politics for as long as Parliaments, Congresses and Senates have existed. Yet their role in actually shaping government policy needs to be carefully scrutinized.

Of course, many lobby groups fall well outside the circle of well-funded and well-connected groups like CTF. Some are run as charities on shoestring budgets. Their members often feel impelled into action by a deep passion for their communities and their cause.

In some cases, members and supporters believe that their views remain unheard, or unheeded. Or that they are ignored amidst the rise of professional politics and the resulting metropolitan elites - on both sides of politics.

I have friends who work for lobbies like these. I may not always agree with their stance on issues, but I applaud their deep commitment and their pursuit of what they believe is for the common good.

Lobby organisations may be necessary to politics but they should not get too cosy with politicians. A healthy distance must be maintained if objectivity is be both achieved and seen to be achieved.

For their part, MPs - and those paid to advise them - must ensure that they move beyond the professional political bubble, to hear the views of local, community-based groups.

In particular, they should seek out religious bodies, charities with sizeable constituencies, networks representing small businesses and even local community associations.

By virtue of their size and donor-base, most of these groups cannot afford the luxury of PR representation or professional lobbyists. Yet they often provide a better insight into the potential impact of policy because they are politically non-aligned and because they operate at grass-roots level.

Their advice, while still driven by the best interests of their clientele, is coloured by day-to-day experience at the coal-face where policy decisions impact on individuals, families, communities and businesses.

Politicos must avoid seeming shortcuts and expedient short-term answers, pondering long and hard how their present choices will impact on the future.

They must also learn to behave in more statesmen-like ways; thinking not just of the next election but of the next generation. They should be wary of those lobbyists who operate closest to the centres of power.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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