A well regulated lobby

10Jun13

Our elected (and unelected) officials keep getting caught with their hands in the till by investigative journalists.

The proposed remedy for this is to establish a register for lobbyists. A plan that the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) seems to be eagerly embracing (when it’s not saying that the plan needs to be even more encompassing). I smell a rat. It’s just not normal for people to ask for more regulation of their industry, unless they have (or are trying to establish) regulatory capture.

Why politicians like the idea

A register of lobbyists will make it easy for politicians to check the credentials of those they’re speaking to. This will make it harder (more expensive and time consuming) for investigative journalists to pose as lobbyists. Newspapers are now going to have to run cut out lobby organisations (on a variety of issues to suit the needs of future stings). This will likely preclude public interest broadcasters like the BBC from participation – building fake lobby organisations won’t be seen as a good use of TV license payer’s money.

So this is all about stopping politicians from getting caught, and does nothing to stop politicians from being corrupt (and of course even the non corrupt politicians don’t like people getting caught, because it makes their parties and the entire political establishment look bad).

Why the professional lobbyists like the idea

A register will be a barrier to entry. Their job is to gain access to people with limited time and bandwidth, so anything that cuts down the size of the field helps.

Why ordinary citizens should not like the idea

If the only lobbyists are professional lobbyists then our political system becomes entirely bought and paid for[1]. Amateur lobbyists and pressure groups are an essential part of the democratic process. As Tim Wu pointed out in his ORGCon keynote at the weekend – movements start with the amateurs and enthusiasts.

I was personally involved in the creation of The Coalition For a Digital Economy (Coadec) at a time when the Digital Economy Bill (now Act) was threatening to undermine the use of the Internet by many small businesses. That organisation is now well enough established that I’m sure it could step in line with any regulation of lobbyists. It’s hard to see how we’d have got from a bunch of geeks in a Holborn pub to what’s there today without the support of friendly politicians. We needed access, and regulation would be just another barrier to that access.

Conclusion

Regulating lobbyists will not prevent corruption in politics. Quite the opposite – it will make it more challenging for individual corruption to be found out, and strengthen the systemic corruption of corporate interests in politics. We all ought to get lobbying about this while we still can.

Notes

[1] Rather than mostly bought an paid for as it is today.



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