The Secretive World of Lobbying

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Scandal is a word often associated with the business of lobbying. Involving individuals and organisations trying to influence the opinions of politicians, the practice has been tainted by controversies since the notorious cash-for-questions debacle in the 1990s, when MPs accepted sums of money in return for tabling parliamentary questions. In recent months, following the resignation of Tory defence secretary Liam Fox over his links with shadowy lobbyists, it has once again become the focus of intense public scrutiny. But soon, new reforms could be about to clean up the system.

The scale of the problem has long been recognised by those in government. Before he became prime minister in 2010, David Cameron gave an often quoted speech on “secret corporate lobbying” and issued a stark warning. “It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works,” he said. “It is the next big scandal waiting to happen.”

Unfortunately for Cameron, his prediction soon came true. Since coming to power, aside from the revelations concerning Fox late last year, a series of investigations have shed light on a murky trail that leads straight to the door of the coalition government itself. In December, undercover recordings were published of executives from Bell Pottinger, one of the country’s largest lobbying firms, boasting about the access they had to the prime minister while claiming they could “facilitate” meetings with powerful government figures. Owned by Conservative peer Lord Bell, the company is known to have worked for a host of countries with poor human rights records – including Libya, Syria, Sri Lanka and Rwanda – to help improve their reputations and build potential links with overseas governments.

“Lobbying in itself isn’t a crime,” says Tamasin Cave of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (ALT). “But the situation we have at the moment in this country is that we have an unregulated, mainly commercial lobbying industry... It is distorting the democratic process.

“Organisations don’t spend this money [on lobbying] because it has no effect. They are paying for influence and access, and that we see as a problem. So we’re calling for transparency regulations; you can’t stop lobbying but what you can do is make it open to public scrutiny.”

The central issue is that the lobbying industry, estimated to be worth around £2 billion in the UK, is currently self-regulatory and is not obliged by law to publish any details about its activities. Though charity groups and campaigners also often lobby government, large and wealthy corporations (and foreign governments) can have a disproportionate influence by paying well-connected private lobbying firms like Bell Pottinger millions to directly pressurise politicians – yet the public is never made aware about the full extent of the pressure being

To curb this lack of transparency, the government is expected to put forward plans – perhaps as soon as this week – for the introduction of a mandatory lobbying register, which would bring details about who is lobbying who into the public domain. Many believe, however, that much more needs to be done.

ALT, a campaign group formed by a coalition of 15 organisations including Greenpeace and Action Aid, is calling for a number of regulations to be introduced that it believes would make lobbying far more accountable. Aside from a mandatory register, it would like to see all meetings and correspondence between lobbyists and MPs recorded, along with enforceable ethics rules banning the employment of government officials or their relatives for lobbying purposes.

“We think that the public should be able to see who is lobbying who, what they are lobbying about, and how much money in particular is being spent on that piece of lobbying,” Cave says. “We’re behind the times on this issue in this country, and yet we have one of the biggest lobbying industries in the world.”

Among the lobbyists themselves, there is far from consensus on the issue of statutory legislation. Some believe the industry’s self-regulatory body, the UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC), is doing a good job, but others disagree. This was made clear after the Bell Pottinger scandal, when one professional lobbyists’ group, the Public Relations Consultants Association, withdrew from UKPAC, saying it lacked “credibility and competence” and had failed to do its job.

For Mark Adams OBE, the issues are not so clear cut. A freelance lobbyist and former private secretary to two prime ministers (Tony Blair and John Major), Adams, who runs a blog called Stand Up For Lobbying, argues statutory regulation could in fact make lobbying even less transparent than it already is.

“I remain to be convinced that statutory regulation will make any difference,” he says. “There are a lot of people who’ve argued that self regulation isn’t perfect, but I don’t think any system of statutory regulation is perfect either. What the government is planning to propose with their statutory register – that doesn’t go anywhere near as far as the various self-regulatory bodies already do.”

The latest scandals that have engulfed the lobbying industry have not convinced Adams new laws introduced by the government are necessary. He is also critical of groups calling for stricter accountability.

“We probably wouldn’t have invented the wheel if we were running government in the way that some of these proponents of transparency are calling for,” he says. “I think some of the more extreme so-called transparency measures would actually do more to push lobbying into the shadows than anything the industry has done over the last 20 years to bring it out of the shadows.

“If you have a system of recording every official meeting, nothing of any real interest will be discussed there – it’ll be discussed behind closed doors. What will happen is ministers and MPs will ‘bump into’ people in the margins of conferences, seminars and meetings, or perhaps during lunch – we’re not going to record every lunch.”

In other countries such as America and Canada, lobbying has long been regulated by the state, forcing those who are attempting to influence government to enter on to a centrally maintained, publicly accessible database. In Britain these details often remain undisclosed, and are only uncovered after specific details are requested from government departments under the Freedom of Information Act. One such request recently revealed that a report by the coalition rejecting tougher controls on large pub companies was partly written by powerful industry lobby group the British Beer and Pub Association – with sections of the report copied and pasted directly from industry proposals.

“When we’re at a situation when we have an austerity agenda, and we’ve got cuts left right and centre, it’s important to know whose interests are being served,” says James Graham of reform group Unlock Democracy. “No law in itself can actually transform things – it’s got to come with a culture shift. But what new legislation will do is put the onus on questioning where that culture shift hasn’t happened, and put those individuals in the spotlight.”

The Iraq War

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

American soldiers celebrated last month when President Obama announced the “end of the war” in Iraq. The nine-year conflict took a serious toll on the superpower, which led a coalition from across the world into what will be remembered as one of the most controversial and disastrous episodes in recent history. Over a trillion dollars are estimated to have been spent and more than 100,000 lives lost. For Obama, the departure of the last US troops on 18 December was a “moment of success”. But as the bombings and killings continue in their absence, it remains unclear quite what has been achieved.

From the outset the decision to go to war was contentious. In Europe, the purpose was to tackle the threat of weapons of mass destruction. The US was more explicit in its aim to remove Saddam Hussein. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks on 11 September 2001, there were fears that the threat was grave. Millions in cities from London to Japan took to the streets to protest, calling for a diplomatic solution, but the military invasion continued as planned.

Shock and awe were the words used to describe the war’s early stages in March 2003. For days capital city Baghdad was pounded relentlessly as thousands of bombs were dropped from British and American planes. In the first three months, an estimated 35,000 civilians died. There were no weapons of mass destruction, but the war, resisted fiercely by Iraqi militias and insurgents, did not cease. Saddam was captured and hung, while across Iraq gruelling and bloody battles ensued.

US political strategist Joe Trippi remembers the period well. In the build-up to the invasion he was working as national campaign manager for democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, who mounted the only major opposition campaign against the war. Trippi also served as an adviser to Tony Blair in 2005, and has since visited Iraq, where he helped Iraqis organise grassroots political campaigns.

“I still believe the war was a mistake,” he says, speaking over the phone from Maryland in eastern America. “But having done it, it was clear to me that things were not going to go well when we left. One of the problems is that there isn’t any heritage of holding elections – you know, how to organise a party, how to campaign, how to build a political party to build a democracy.”

While in northern Iraq last year – before US troop withdrawals – Trippi witnessed the presence of low level corruption. So long as US representatives were not present at security checkpoints, he noticed it was possible to pay Iraqi police to get through without being searched.

“Being someone who was against the war, against us having troops there, feeling responsibility for what would happen when we left, it was very disconcerting,” he says, adding that the visible presence of US nemesis Iran was equally unsettling. “It was very clear that Iran was trying to exert as much influence as possible... They [the Iranians] were everywhere, much more than any American influence I think, in terms of people on the ground.”

But continued US occupation may have only delayed the inevitable and resulted in more lives lost, Trippi believes. “It became clearer to me that, stay or leave, I feared I had been right. The war had been a blunder from the beginning.”

In the weeks since the final US troops left Iraq, a spate of sectarian violence has left hundreds dead, leading some to suggest that the country could now be on the brink of civil war. Though coalition forces are no longer present in the country, officials who cooperated with them are being targeted. Tensions between regional Sunni, Shia and Kurdish groups continue to rise, and Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has flouted the country’s new constitution by trying to force his deputy, Saleh al-Mutlaq, out of office without the due process stipulated in law.

“Maliki may or may not be deliberately manoeuvring to make himself the new dictator of Iraq but his political instincts are very problematic regardless,” warned Kenneth Pollack, a prominent former US government intelligence analyst, in a recent article for Washington think-tank the Brookings Institution. “He is paranoid and prone to conspiracy theories. He is impatient with democratic politics and frequently interprets political opposition as a personal threat. And when faced with opposition, he often lashes out, seeing it as an exaggerated threat that must be immediately obliterated through any means possible, constitutional or otherwise.”

Last month an arrest warrant was issued for Iraq’s Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi – a fierce critic of al-Maliki – over allegations he has links to terrorists, prompting him to flee to the Kurdish-controlled north of the country and eliciting a statement of “surprise” from the president, Jalal Talabani. Amid the controversy, the Al-Iraqiya bloc, which represents most of the country’s Sunnis, staged a boycott of parliament, accusing al-Maliki of abusing his position.

The situation is volatile, according to Pollack, who was himself an initial advocate of the 2003 invasion. “The future of Iraq is hanging by a thread, but no one knows whether the thread will break, and if so, where the country will land. Civil war? A new, unstable dictatorship? A failed state? A messy partition? All of these are plausible scenarios and none of them will be happy outcomes for Iraq, for the region, or for the United States for that matter.”

David Siegel, professor of political science at Florida State University, thinks that the fate of the country will depend critically on the government being “sufficiently inclusive” of Iraq’s various minority groups. “Corruption must be minimised,” he says. “It also will depend on the degree to which the Iraqi people are able to maintain patience in the face of inevitable attacks.”

For ordinary Iraqis, over the course of the last nine years, violence has become an almost ever-present feature of everyday life. The departure of all foreign troops from their country will undoubtedly mark a new and historic chapter, and it is significant that a basic democratic framework in the form of an elected government is now established. But the grim reality is that, despite this, the country looks to be more unstable now than before the war began.

“It has already levelled out in a sense – it’s not really getting any better,” says Hamit Dardagan, co-founder of Iraq Body Count (IBC), an organisation that has monitored civilian casualties throughout the Iraq War. “It seems to have settled into this steady background level of violence. The first signs are that it is not going to go away because the US has left, as clearly there’s been a noticeable increase in violence just recently.”

IBC has documented 114,247 civilian casualties in Iraq between 2003-2011, a figure that includes over 3,900 children under the age of 18. A total of 4,802 soldiers – 93 per cent of them American – were also killed during the course of the war. Since US forces left Iraq in the week before Christmas, bombings have continued to be a weekly occurrence – with some of the worst violence in months inflamed by disputes between warring factions.

“Obviously US forces directly won’t be killing anyone anymore, but that doesn’t mean there won’t still be people getting killed because there are attacks going on,” Dardagan says. “The one thing about this is that it’s possible for the United States to bring war to Iraq – but the only people that can bring peace to Iraq is the Iraqis.”

Bank of Ideas

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

On the fringe of London’s wealthy financial district, a four-storey building owned by one of the world’s largest companies has found an unlikely new purpose. 5-29 Sun Street, an office block owned by Swiss financial services giant UBS, was ‘repossessed’ last month by protesters part of the anti-corporate greed Occupy movement. Offering the opportunity to “trade in creativity rather than cash,” it is now bustling with art workshops and discussion groups focusing on everything from squatters’ rights to economic trade policy.

The protesters did not pick their target at random. UBS has in recent years attracted heavy criticism for a range of risky financial practices. In 2008 the firm was made to pay a £500m fine to the US government over allegations it had helped wealthy Americans evade taxes through offshore accounts. The same year it reported losses larger than any company in Swiss history and, despite this, went on to pay some of its executives salaries of over £8m – slashing 11,000 jobs and accepting a £40bn bailout from the Swiss government along the way.

Renamed by protesters the Bank of Ideas, UBS’s multi-million pound London property has become an important hub for Occupy activists. As the winter weather begins to bite, their divisive outdoor campsite at St Paul’s Cathedral has seen a drop in numbers and is planning to scale down. The repossessed building, though run down, provides shelter out of the wind and rain, with toilet facilities, electricity and a kitchen serving up free hot food. Eviction proceedings have been launched against them, but the latest hearing was last week postponed until January. In the meantime, the Bank of Ideas is staying open for business.

Inside the massive, 400-room building, people from all walks of life mingle. An open door policy is essentially in operation; all visitors must sign in, but anyone can come and go provided they are not disruptive. Among die-hard protesters who have been involved with the Occupy London protests since they began in October, there are homeless people, families, teenagers with nowhere else to go, and even a few inquisitive pensioners. Crammed with meeting rooms, a makeshift internet cafe, a library, a kitchen and even a 500 seat lecture theatre, it is in effect the largest community centre in England – albeit unofficially.

On the first floor, down a quiet corridor, a large, bright room has been transformed into an art workshop. The walls are decorated with paintings and graffiti, and in the middle two young rappers, Sonny Green, 17, and Tom Coffey, 21, perform an impromptu song. Green, from Southend in Essex, explains that he stayed for two weeks the St Paul’s campsite, and has been visiting the Bank of Ideas since it opened on 19 November.

“Coming here is just amazing for the soul,” he says. “London at the moment, especially if you are my sort of age, is really gritty. There’s not much to do, and you can easily get led down the wrong path all the time through violence and things like that.”

A number of youth centres across London have been forced to close in the wake of recent government budget cuts, which has had a tangible impact on the lives of many young people in the city. The Bank of Ideas, though under-resourced and run by a ramshackle team of volunteers, is to this end performing an important function.

“When you’re out on the streets, it’s almost like the police are just trying to intimidate you all the time,” Green says. “Places like this bring it all back to reality: we can love each other, we can be peaceful, and we can create stuff, we can do what we want, we can have our say.”

Today, Green, who plans to release an album called When Words Fail Music Speaks early next year, has brought his friend and fellow musician Coffey to the Bank of Ideas for the first time. A rising star on London’s hip-hop circuit under the name “Agrow”, Coffey is impressed by what he has seen.

“I’m glad I came because I’ve met some magnificent people,” he says. “I came here just to see what’s going on. I wanted to appreciate the vibes of people trying to make a positive change for the world rather than a negative change to pull us all down.”

Outside the art workshop, the rest of the office block is lively with activity. A large group gathers near the kitchen for a discussion on squatting, while up a flight of stairs in a calm room designated for meditation, a green-haired woman in her early 60s, Corina Flamma, shares an extraordinary story.

Born in Liberia, she came to England in the 1950s as a child with her father, who was then the West African nation’s consul general to the UK. Aged 20, she sang in an all-girl pop group, the Flamma-Sherman Sisters, who secured a publishing deal with the Beatles’ Apple Records in the late 1960s. Earlier this year, Flamma was made homeless after her North London flat was repossessed. She now lives at the Bank of Ideas along with her daughter, Zo, on a mattress in a disused meeting room.

“Occupy is an alternative socio-economic provider complimenting the government,” she says. “It’s providing housing, it’s providing food … I see it as a vehicle to recycle wasted buildings, wasted resources, wasted people and wasted skills. It’s a very important principle that doesn’t end with the loss of this building.”

Before she came to the Bank of Ideas, Flamma, a qualified architect, was sleeping on a friend’s sofa. “I was not joyful,” she says. “But the blinkers are now off my eyes. I see England in a totally new way. I had given up with this country until I came to Occupy.”

There are many in the building, like Flamma, who face difficult circumstances. Yet despite this, a sense of optimism prevails. With an average of around eight workshops every day on a wide array of topics, there are opportunities to learn, discuss, share and build. This process has led the participants to feel they are part of a something positive and important – a global protest community that has flourished in 2011 and continues to grow.

“The fact is a tiny proportion [of the population] has this disproportionate control,” says Janos Abel, a 74-year-old retired engineer who frequently visits the Bank of Ideas to participate in discussion groups. “The 99 per cent has to wake up as to how they are so powerless. And that’s what I hope will grow out of this occupation.”

Once active in historic student protests in France during the 1960s, Abel is convinced the Occupy movement is of greater significance because of the internet’s role in spreading its message global. A tall, thin man of Hungarian descent, he recounts how he has been politically engaged since he was a youngster. But today, at the Bank of Ideas, he is more content than ever. “I’m doing something I wanted to do all my life,” he says, smiling. “I’m trying to change the world.”