The Coalition’s pernicious lobbying bill

When the Coalition’s Lobbying Bill appeared in public for the first time, just before the summer recess, much attention was focused on Part I. Most critics agree that it represents an utterly feeble attempt to address the problem of corporate lobbying. Indeed, if the Bill is passed in its current form then it may well result in a smaller proportion of the relevant activities being transparent than is the case at the moment. Not only are the critics of corporate lobbying saying this, some representatives of the lobbying industry have said very similar things.

But as we move towards the Bill being reintroduced to the House next week, more attention is focusing on Part II, which addresses non-party campaigning. [Read more…]

Participatory inequality and the rise of populist politics

decision...It’s been a fascinating and frustrating few days in politics.

On Thursday lunchtime I discovered that Claus Offe, one of the world’s most famous political sociologists, as giving a lecture entitled Participatory inequality in the austerity state about a hundred metres from my office late on Thursday afternoon. I thought it would be interesting to trundle along.

As it turned out “austerity state” made for a good title but was not hugely central to the talk. The talk focused on two well-known problems.

First, participation in the institutions of liberal democracy is in decline across the western world. It isn’t just the proportion of the population who bother to vote that is in decline, seemingly inexorably. In fact, voting holds up better than most of the other indicators you might look at, such as political party membership or other more active forms of political engagement. Britain is not at all unusual in now recording less than 10% of the population as being political party members. That is now the norm. Political parties are now more likely to be guided by polling, focus groups and a rather desperate pursuit of the swing voter and the mythical middle ground than they are to represent a set of values to which millions of people actively subscribe.

Second, the decline in participation is not uniform. It is sharpest among the young, those on lower incomes, with fewer skills and lower levels of education. Hence Offe’s reference to participatory inequality.

The challenge is that the system is locked in to a self-reinforcing, path dependent process. At least that is how I’d describe what Offe was saying, even if he didn’t quite put it in those terms. As participation declines, it makes sense for politicians to offer policies that appeal to those who are still most inclined to vote – older, better-educated and better-off households. That in turn means that voters in other social locations – the poor and unskilled workers – perceive politics to be a game run primarily for the benefit of the rich, and hence disengage further from the process. [Read more…]

A malign influence

Lobbying is corrosive. The lobbying industry adds nothing of genuine value to society. It is insidious because it undermines citizens’ belief that democracy is transparent and that politics seeks to serve the public interest. It fosters the impression, if not the also the reality, that policy is being made for the benefit of the few rather than the many.

One of the most welcome commitments the Government made in the May 2010 Coalition agreement was that:

We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency.

Oliver Letwin published the consultation paper Introducing a statutory register of lobbyists last week. It was shortly followed by the Guardian article on The Chemistry Club, which reinforced – if such reinforcement were necessary – just how pernicious lobbying is.

Liberal democrats have a long and noble track record of championing the cause of open government. Transparency is vital to liberal democracy. Many will therefore have a close interest in this consultation. They should have. Because the Government’s proposals are lousy. [Read more…]