(By Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell/The Guardian) From trying to stop plain packaging on cigarettes to pushing through HS2 and opening the countryside to fracking, big business employs lobbying companies to persuade government to meet their interests. But what are the tricks of their trade?
What does a tax-avoiding, polluting, privatising corporation have to do to get its way with the British government? “We all know how it works,” said David Cameron of lobbying. But do we? Lobbyists are the paid persuaders whose job it is to influence the decisions of government. Typically, they operate behind closed doors, through quiet negotiation with politicians. And the influence they enjoy is constructed very consciously, using a whole array of tactics.
Lobbyists operate in the shadows – deliberately. As one lobbyist notes: “The influence of lobbyists increases when it goes largely unnoticed by the public.” But if the reasons why companies lobby are often obscured, it is always a tactical investment. Whether facing down a threat to profits from a corporate tax hike, or pushing for market opportunities – such as government privatisations – lobbying has become another way of making money.
Here are the 10 key steps that lobbying businesses will follow to bend government to their will.
1. Control the ground
Lobbyists succeed by owning the terms of debate, steering conversations away from those they can’t win and on to those they can. If a public discussion on a company’s environmental impact is unwelcome, lobbyists will push instead to have a debate with politicians and the media on the hypothetical economic benefits of their ambitions. Once this narrowly framed conversation becomes dominant, dissenting voices will appear marginal and irrelevant.
Everybody’s doing it, including lobbyists for fracking and nuclear power, public sector reform and bank regulation. It doesn’t matter if the new frame relies on fabrication. The referendum on an alternative voting system was not, as anticipated, so much a conversation about the merits of first past the post. No2AV was “very quick off the mark” to make it about cost to the public purse, explains Dylan Sharpe, of the No camp’s TaxPayers’ Alliance. They led with the claim that switching to AV would deny troops badly needed equipment and sick babies incubators. The Yes camp lost the vote two to one.
2. Spin the media
The trick is in knowing when to use the press and when to avoid it. The more noise there is, the less control lobbyists have. As a way of talking to government, though, the media is crucial. Messages are carefully crafted. Even if the corporate goal is pure, self-interested profit-making, it will be dressed up to appear synonymous with the wider, national interest. At the moment, that means economic growth and jobs.
Get the messaging wrong and you get fiascos such as High Speed 2 (HS2). In early 2011, lobbyist James Bethell of Westbourne Communications was parachuted in to rescue the £43bn project, which had initially been sold by ministers on the marginal benefits to a few commuters. Westbourne reframed the debate to make it about jobs and economic growth. The new messaging focused on a narrative that pitted wealthy people in the Chilterns worried about their hunting rights against the economic benefits to the north. The strategy was “posh people standing in the way of working-class people getting jobs,” said Bethell. “Their lawns or our jobs,” shouted the ad campaign.
Private healthcare also regrouped after the wrong messages went public. As Andrew Lansley embarked on his radical reforms of the NHS, private hospitals and outsourcing firms were talking to investors about the “clear opportunities” to profit from the changes. After comments by Mark Britnell, the head of health at accountancy giants KPMG giants and a former adviser of David Cameron, hit the headlines in May 2011 – Britnell told an investors’ conference that “the NHS will be shown no mercy and the best time to take advantage of this will be in the next couple of years” – the industry got a grip. Lobby group The NHS Partners Network moved quickly to get everyone back on-message and singing from “common hymn sheets”, as its chief lobbyist David Worskett explained. The reforms were about the survival of the NHS in straitened times. Just nobody mention the bumper profits.
3. Engineer a following
It doesn’t help if a corporation is the only one making the case to government. That looks like special pleading. What is needed is a critical mass of voices singing to its tune. This can be engineered.
The forte of lobbying firm Westbourne is in mobilising voices behind its clients. Thirty economists, for example, signed a letter to the FT in 2011 in support of HS2; 100 businesses endorsed another published in the Daily Telegraph.
Westbourne was also hired in 2011 to lobby against the top rate of tax, although who was behind its “50p tax campaign” remains a mystery. Ahead of the chancellor’s annual Budget announcement in early 2012, letters appeared in the press demanding he scrap it. The FT’s was signed by 20 economists. The Telegraph’s by the bosses of 573 SMEs, described as the “bedrock” of British industry. A quick glance, though, revealed it included five managers from the Switzerland-based banking giant Credit Suisse. The paper’s commentary noted the alarm this new call from “ordinary British business” would cause inside government.
4. Buy in credibility
Corporations are one of the least credible sources of information for the public. What they need, therefore, are authentic, seemingly independent people to carry their message for them.
One nuclear lobbyist admitted it spread messages “via third-party opinion because the public would be suspicious if we started ramming pro-nuclear messages down their throats”. That’s it in a nutshell.
The tobacco companies are pioneers of this technique. Their recent campaign against plain packaging has seen them fund newsagents to push the economic case against the policy and encourage trading standards officers to lobby their MPs. British American Tobacco also currently funds the Common Sense Alliance, which is fronted by two ex-policemen and campaigns against “irrational” regulation. Philip Morris is similarly paying an ex-Met police officer, Will O’Reilly, to front a media campaign linking plain packaging to tobacco smuggling. It is worth noting that a decade ago the tobacco giant coughed up $1.25bn to the European Commission to settle a long-running dispute over its own complicity in the illicit trade.
5. Sponsor a thinktank
“The thinktank route is a very good one,” said ex-minister Patricia Hewitt to undercover reporters seeking lobbying advice. Some thinktanks will provide companies with a lobbying package: a media-friendly report, a Westminster event, ear-time with politicians. “The exact same services that a lobbying agency would provide,” says one lobbyist. “They’re just more expensive.”
In the mid-noughties, a lobbyist for Standard Life Healthcare, now part of PruHealth, worried about how they could get more people to buy private cover without being seen to undermine the NHS. The solution: “Get some of the thinktanks to say it, so it’s not just us calling for reform, it’s outside commentators … it does need others to help us take the debate forward.” The insurers did turn to thinktanks, including free-market advocates Reform. This has lobbied for more “insurance-based private funding” in the health service. Prudential, the insurance giant behind PruHealth, was Reform’s most generous sponsor in 2012, investing £67,500 in the thinktank.
The BBC has also come under repeated recent criticism for inviting commentators from the leading neo-liberal thinktank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), to talk about its opposition to the plain packaging of cigarettes, without disclosing the Institute’s tobacco funding. Although the IEA does not disclose who funds it, BAT concedes it has recently paid the IEA £30,000, with more to come this year. Leaked documents from Philip Morris also reveal the thinktank is one of its “media messengers” in its anti- plain-packaging campaign.
6. Consult your critics
Companies faced with a development that has drawn the ire of a local community will often engage lobbyists to run a public consultation exercise. Again, not as benign as it sounds. “Businesses have to be able to predict risk and gain intelligence on potential problems,” says ex-Tesco lobbyist Bernard Hughes. “The army used to call it reconnaissance; we call it consultation.”
For some in the business, community consultation – anything from running focus groups, exhibitions, planning exercises and public meetings – is a means of flushing out opposition and providing a managed channel through which would-be opponents can voice concerns. Opportunities to influence the outcome, whether it is preventing an out-of-town supermarket or protecting local health services, are almost always nil.
Residents in Barne Barton in Plymouth were asked in 2011 what they thought about a 95-metre, PFI-financed incinerator being sited in their neighbourhood, just 62 metres from the nearest house. Although more than 5,000 people objected, the waste company’s planning application was waved through. That’s community consultation.