In the wake of yet another political scandal rearing its ugly head in the British press, this time over the recurring issue of “cash for questions”, certain questions are bound to be asked in the coming weeks. I fear however that one question which will be noticeable in its very absence is whether those who vote and form the backbone of democracies enjoy enough access to their elected representatives. In the course of pondering this question I will somewhat inevitably come to look at the issue of lobbying and the problems such means of access to elected officials tends to cause.
In an ideal case scenario, the people in a democratic country, once achieving suffrage, utilise this bounty and elect politicians to some form of representative body which then goes on to pass laws and engage in debate as to the political path that the country will follow. Alongside electing representatives for a given geographical area, most elections in democratic countries also allow for the election of a leader of the government and some of the country, with these figures then going on to in principle inform the legislative direction the government will take. To a large extent this remains to this day an accurate description of how the election part of a democracy continues to work. However with the passage of history it seems that peoples contact with the governing figures has diminished greatly and that to a large extent once people attain positions of power, certainly here in the UK, that the public do not really have access to them other than when the politician is wheeled out for meet and greets where no discussion of any importance is had. It is perhaps not too great an exaggeration to say that when people in the UK do meet politicians once they have gained office, that those politicians are not to be viewed in any sort of professional capacity, that they are there more as someone famous “off the telly”.
What I’ve described above, politicians spending time meeting and discussing issues with the people who elected them, is of course an ideal case scenario. This being said, it appears to be the case that there are other ways in which you can get politicians to listen to you. It’s to offer them money in return for them listening to your ideas and then letting them sell those ideas in parliament or a like for like public space and pass them off as ideas of their own. That in a roundabout way, is what we call lobbying. The practice of lobbying, is a problematic aspect of politics in most countries and the UK is no different. The reason that lobbying as part of the political process is so problematic is that it can be seen to have both positive and negative effects. Take for example a situation where government is set to vote on legislature that can be construed as “friendly” to a company whose record on environmental issues isn’t squeaky clean, then in this situation it is entirely plausible that another body who represents environmentalists or farmers, as just two of many possible examples, could lobby the government to prevent the initial legislature being voted on. In that scenario, lobbying has been used in positive way to prevent presumably the company from harming the environment. Of course, what my dreamy scenario about environmentalists actually winning the day misses out is that both the environmentalist group and the company with a poor record on green issues have a inordinate amount of social and economic power which has allowed them to gain access to politicians to support their respective causes, while the people who the politicians serve have a complete deficiency of the same types of power meaning their voices are rarely heard. To utilise a round and about analogy to explain the problem, a way in which we can view lobbying is as a parent struggling to separate two teenagers who are yelling, bawling and flailing around in an piss poor attempt to injure each other, meanwhile drown out by all the racket of the other two children, their baby sibling goes hungry as it cannot make a noise equal too or louder than its elder siblings that would alert the mother to its more pressing needs. The only problem with this analogy is that it perhaps over simplifies the situation when in reality there are very rarely only two competing voices struggling to be heard by politicians but dozens if not hundreds throughout the course of the parliamentary year and yet despite the much greater number of constituents that a politician is meant to serve the money and the power speak a lot louder than any heartfelt concern it seems.
This issue of those who already command a tremendous deal of power, to some degree co-opting the democratic process has been a thorn in the side of the British political system for quite some time and this latest fiasco proves that nothing useful has been done despite the assurances of many party leaders throughout the years. The current scandal, like all the good ones, is a cross party one with people involved from all sides of our lovely and bland political spectrum proving that the claims of superior morality by any party carry as much weight as a bag of hot air.
The fact that every side of the government of the UK is somewhat beset by lobbyists looking for support for their own ends, nefarious and benign, cannot be doubted and yet despite issues around this matter repeatedly surfacing in the British press and on parliamentary motions little has been done to curb the power that lobbyists have over political agendas here , or elsewhere for that matter. Using my example above of an environmental group and a group with a little bit of a dodgy record when it comes to environmental issues , the reader might be tempted to wonder what all the fuss about lobbying is over, but in my drive to explain clearly the issue at hand I have perhaps made lobbyists seem a little more benign than the reality of the situation. Undoubtedly there are lobbyists for all sorts of praiseworthy causes but there are also a lot who make an extremely immoral living off getting governments to support causes that I’m sure their constituents disagree with vehemently. Example of the big players in the corporate lobbyist industry would include the Arms industry, the Alcohol industry, the Tobacco Industry and the Gambling industry to name but a few. All of these industries, while providing valuable contributions to the economy, are hardly moral causes and it surely should raise the hackles of politicians that representatives of these industries are so keen to buy legislative support considering the PROVEN ill effects that the products of the last three industries at least have on people within their constituencies. And if the fact that some lobbyists try to get politicians to support measures that will directly harm their own constituents, even kill some perhaps, does not bother politicians, then perhaps the even greater ill effect that governmental support for arms conglomerates and dictatorial regimes will have on the wider world might cause them to think twice. Or perhaps as many fear, the money and power of the lobbyist industry has completely subverted democracy and the voice of the man on the street is no longer worth caring about, even if he in all his wisdom elected the politician selling him out.
A particularly poignant remark made by Guardian writer Andrew Rawnsley in a piece discussing lobbying mused on the ill effect this practice has likely had on how people view governments.
“The pungent smell given off by the whole business also feeds public cynicism about how government works that swells voter alienation, anger and disengagement.”
His observation certainly strikes me as being very close to my own feelings, and I would hazard to guess the feelings of many other Britons. Whatever happens as a result of this scandal, I’m sure we will hear a lot about how the government and the opposition both feel this issue can be dealt with. But it remains to be seen whether those reporting on this scandal will discuss that lack of access the public enjoys to their representatives in government. The lobbying scandal will surely continue to surface at the most inopportune moments unless government pledges its own divorce from corporations and vows to re-engage with the electorate. This idea is not a guaranteed solution by any means, but its certainly a worthwhile suggestion that needs to be heard in the wake of another scandal proving that politicians are as interested if not more so in the needs of the rich and powerful wherever they may be than their own electorate who they are sworn to serve.