Are British Lobbysts better than their American counterparts?
May 8, 2005 6:53 AM   Subscribe

What are the fundamental differences, if any, between US and UK political lobbyists?

I run a mailing list letting my family and friends stay in touch. A couple live in the Western United States and somehow the subject veered to gun control. Or, more properly, how easily the British allowed themselves to be disarmed.

I brought up the Dunblane massacare (1996, some 16 children under the age of six murdered) and opined that this clearly illustrated the effectiveness of the British system; a problem was identified and they very rapidly put a solution into place, apparently without being distracted by special interests, for example, the UK equivalent of the NRA.

So what can / can't lobbysts in the UK do? I've been living in England for about eight years now, and I never seem to hear much about their meddling, at least compared to those back in the US. Are they much more restricted or is it a case that they are so much better than their US counterparts, so that one doesn't notice their activities?

I googled but couldn't find much that it explained clearly. And before you ask, why yes, I am an Anglophile!
posted by Mutant to Law & Government (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
For most topics, it is far more effective to lobby in Brussels and to get European regulations bended, when it comes to that. Especially because the EU institutions aren't as clearly watched by the media, as there are no pan-European media, lack democratic control, and a lobbyist can have influence on the laws in 25 countries in one go.

I am just saying.
posted by ijsbrand at 7:14 AM on May 8, 2005

In his book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Greg Palast exposed some globalization-related lobbying in Britain, while working for the Globe newspaper. The thesis of the article was that the techniques of British lobbyists are behind the US lobbyists in the extent of their corruption, but are learning the tatics from the US. I believe. His article made the front page and was a big scandal at the time. Palast is an investigative journalist and in the book, he exposes corruption behind the Bush family, the Florida elections, and Pat Robertson, among others. I recommend it.
posted by Candide at 8:49 AM on May 8, 2005

Best answer: In essence the difference lies in from whence they've come. In the US they're lawyers, in the UK lobbyists (or public affairs consultants as they style themselves) have grown from the public relations industry. This difference is reflected in the relative pay of those working in either jurisdiction as well as fees charged to clients.

British lobbyists don't tend to draft legislation and are less involved in the legislative process. Indeed Parliamentary rules preclude lobbyists holding Parliamentary passes. In the states with much more legislation being directly introduced by elected representatives, lobbyists will be in and out of that Congressman's office all day long. Conversely, in the UK the government puts forward the bulk of legislation. Private members bills are a rarity and the only circumstances in which they are enacted is where they have the explicit and overt backing of the government - the Copyright Act 2002 is a good example of this.

It is my understanding, but I'm not sure, that in the US lobbyists are precluded from media relations work. Supposedly they're not allowed to talk to the media. In the UK lobbying is more about shaping the parameters of debate rather than direct participation in the legislative process. British lobbying tends to involve widespread use of articles placed in the media to build a climate for the introduction of a measure.

As far as the European angle goes ijsbrand fundamentally represents reality. Most British and American lobbyists will have offices in Brussels but the EU law doctrine of subsiduarity dictates that while EU law is superior to national law where it conflicts, in its absence the member state has authority to legislate an issue precisely how it pleases. Gun control is an example of legislation where Europe is essentially uninvolved at present. The EU has particular competency in certain set and growing areas. Competition policy and anti-trust law is a good example. Provided that your merger is small enough then the EU doesn’t get involved at all and British competition authorities retain control. Only over a certain size or with a Community aspect (think Microsoft) the EU competition mechanisms become involved so it’s not as simple as ijsbrand makes out.

Moreover (and I won’t labour the point) EU law is transposed into national laws via the domestic political process. As ever the devil is in the details – in the implementation of a European regulation you’d need 25 lobbying agencies in as many counties even if you were able to lobby the European Commission to bring forward legislation in corporate interests which somehow it can get past the scrutiny of the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

Good? Now there’s a question. We’ve had a fair few lobbying scandals in the UK previously the spectacular cash for questions row and more recently the Drapergate Scandal (use bugmenot for access.) The latter led to the construction of an industry body the Association of Professional Political Consultants in an effort to stave off regulation. Cynics say that it’s not worked – the body has no regulatory, investigative or punitive powers whatsoever and serves merely as a fig leaf.

Both of the above scandals to some extent serve to illustrate the nature of British lobbying. On one hand you have reputable public relations firms such as Shandwick and APCO doing political public relations work. (A good list of the top 5 here.) And quietly in the shadows you have much small outfits such as LLM made up of former insiders of the current administration selling privileged access. While the latter certainly exists in the US – indeed some notable names such as Wexler Walker are owned by British firms the former is more characteristically British. I’ll leave you to decide on the mortality but some more excellent primary resources include Public Affairs News and PR Week. Corrine Souza's book So you want to be a lobbyist is good on the British political lobbying landscape but is teeth-itchingly badly written. Nevertheless I'd recommend it - sorry I can't offer you more on the US position.

(Full disclosure: APPC member, former employee of political public relations firm, public policy lawyer)
posted by dmt at 9:04 AM on May 8, 2005

I don't do British politics, but: You'd expect lobbying / interest-group action to be very different in Britain owing to the differences in party systems. In the UK, your political future is far more directly tied to keeping your party leaders happy than it is in the US, because the parties are far stronger and face far fewer legal limitations on their actions than in the US. This'll play out in a couple of ways.

One, you'd expect lobbying ties to be between interest groups and parties, not interest groups and individual MPs. This is most obvious in (old) Labour's explicit enshrinement of trade-union voting rights in the party. One of the side-effects of this is that it would help to make the discussions between group and party easier to obfuscate.

Second, the greater importance of party leaders means that politics in Britain is (likely) more elite-driven than in the US, and when elites on both sides broadly agree on something (like limiting firearms), it's going to happen. In the US, the NRA can conceivably mobilize enough people to get you un-elected, at least in some districts. Even if that happened in the UK, your party could just move you to another constituency if they really liked you.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:22 PM on May 8, 2005

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