Back in February David Cameron recognised the ticking bomb that was lobbying.
'It is the next big scandal waiting to happen... an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money... And we all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way'
In the USA corporate lobbing goes on incessantly and relentlessly, pitting millions of dollars against anything – healthcare, measures against global warming, restrictions on oil companies - that might affect their god-given right to make profits. With the Americanisation of our politics this is our future too, with lobbyists, strings pulled by their corporate masters, sluicing money into influencing parliamentarians.
It doesn’t take a political scientist to conclude that trust in politics will never be restored while shadowy lobbyists are allowed to go on buying influence well outside the light of public scrutiny. One common-sense measure therefore would be to make the clandestine world of lobbying more open. That’s why the campaign group ‘38 degrees’, who want to clean up our corrupt politics, have urged candidates in this election to pledge to support a mandatory public register of lobbyists. This will help to restore confidence in the political process by making the role of big business more transparent.
On January 12th George Eustice, Tory candidate for Camborne and Redruth, agreed that ‘we all have a role to play in restoring trust in politics’. At that time Eustice still worked for lobbying firm Portland Communications, although he has since given up this job, reputedly after pressure was exerted from his old Oxford friend David Cameron. However, despite his desire to ‘restore trust’ Eustice is refusing to sign up to the 38 degrees campaign for a register of lobbyists.
Indeed, George has been extremely coy in general about his links to the lobbying industry. On 18th March he complained that ‘local Lib Dems’ had attacked him for having a ‘real job [sic] in the real world’. He claimed that he didn’t hide this. Far from it; there was ‘widespread media coverage’ when he took the job in March 2009. Strange in that case that in the seven separate communications received from him by the voters of Camborne-Redruth, there isn’t one single word about his lobbying links. And this despite many paragraphs spent giving great biographical detail about his local roots and the family farm. Surely there’s no reason to hide this ‘real job’ in the ‘real world’ of the private sector.
Instead, when he eventually got around to admitting his recent employment history on his blog he adroitly deflected attention by a somewhat disingenuous description of Julia Goldsworthy’s ‘expenses’.
Meanwhile, all the other candidates in the constituency were signing up to the simple pledge for more accountability about lobbying. But George hasn’t. Last Friday he was confronted by a 38 degrees activist at a hustings in Camborne, where they asked why he was refusing to sign up. According to the activist Eustice wouldn’t reply, promising to do so later, before exiting the meeting very quickly with his minders. One of those informed the activist that all the emails sent by campaign supporters asking George to sign up had indeed been received.
But a day later Eustice denied this. Despite 38 degrees having used an email address still to be found on a Cornish Tory website, he conveniently claimed no emails had in fact been received. Turning things against the campaigners he told his readers this was due to their incompetence in getting the email address wrong. In addition Eustice resorted to a simplistic and tribalist response, painting the campaigners as merely a politically motivated smear campaign being run by local Lib Dems.
This was somewhat inaccurate. For all I know those who have emailed him unsuccessfully may well include some Lib Dems. But they also include Cornish activists, members of the Celtic League and even me, and I would rather plunge my bleeding hand into a river teeming with hunger-crazed piranha fish than use it to vote for the Liberal Hypocrats.
Nonetheless, having begun to sow seeds of confusion Eustice then completely misrepresented the 38 degrees campaign. According to him a register of MP’s financial interests (which already exists) would suffice. This neatly ignores that the demand is actually for a register of lobbyists not MPs, so that the public can know who is lobbying, what corporations and clients they are lobbying on behalf of, and how much they are spending to influence our elected representatives.
Lumping together corporate lobbyists with campaigning groups, Eustice crassly continued: ‘People shouldn’t fear that politicians are exposed to the arguments made by charities, campaign groups or businesses. After all, we live in a democracy and we should have free debate.’ But not free enough apparently to know how much big business is spending to buy our MPs. According to Eustice this is best left to politicians who can ‘then exercise judgement about what they think is the right thing to do.’
Having stumbled on the clever device of merging big business professional lobbying and the local scout hut group, Eustice then claimed the moral high ground. ‘I rarely sign up to pledges directly even where I have a lot of sympathy with the cause … The irony is that 38 Degrees are a lobby group themselves and, to date, the only candidate in this seat to resist their lobbying is me.’ As Spinwatch puts it, this type of argumentation looks ‘obfuscatory’. Precisely what one might expect from someone with considerable experience working in an ‘industry’ where there is a fine dividing line between truth and falsehood.
On Tuesday this week 38 degrees decided to raise £500 for an advert in the Western Morning News to point out that Eustice was the only candidate in the constituency refusing to sign up to this pledge. This was approved by the paper in principle. The money duly raised, the campaign group was then told yesterday that the Morning News was refusing to publish the ad – on the advice of their lawyers!
This seems extremely odd as the ad was merely informing voters who had and had not signed up to the pledge. But plainly the Morning News had thought better of allowing an attack on one of their own. Or had they been subject to undue influence? We will never know. What we do know is that George Eustice prefers to protect the right of big business to lobby MPs in private to making corporate lobbying open and transparent so that voters might ‘exercise their judgement’ on these matters.