With the Labour Party Conference in full swing this week, the
national media are having a field day with the overtly commercial tone
of Blackpool ’98, accusing the Government of ’renting out its MPs’ and
latching on to delegates’ references to ’a party for sale’.
In fact, the outraged columnists are treading over old territory. The
sponsorship opportunities which are the focus of so much attention at
this year’s Labour party conference were introduced four years ago, when
Blair first took over leadership of the party, in a bid to lessen its
reliance on the trade unions.
Much is being made of the implied influence that these opportunities
offer to corporate sponsors, and in particular lobbyists. It is the
legacy of ’Drapergate’ and the Ian Greer scandal that if a management
consultancy books a table at a Labour party dinner not an eyebrow is
raised, but when the next table is booked by a public affairs
consultancy on behalf of its clients, the media immediately becomes
But the media’s obsession with the relationship between lobbyists and
new Labour is once again clouding the issue. There is a real confusion
between the concept of corporate fund-raising/sponsorship and formal
lobbying and, crucially, between access and influence. It would be naive
in the extreme to presume that a seat at a table next to a junior
minister at a gala dinner is likely to result in a u-turn in Government
policy - whoever paid for the table. Providing funds for, and putting a
well-researched case to Government remain two distinctly different
disciplines. One requires a cheque book, the other requires an in-depth
knowledge of the political process and months of hard work.
Sponsorship has never been a particularly effective tool for delivering
specific messages to a target audience; its benefits are by association
and are notoriously hard to track or evaluate. In addition, Downing
Street, stung by criticisms of its fund-raising efforts, is now busily
denying that sponsorship packages sold to exhibitors by Millbank’s
business unit include access to specified MPs, or that seating plans at
the gala dinner could in any way be influenced by sponsors.
If there is serious belief that a relationship between corporate
fund-raising and influence on Government policy exists on this scale,
directly contravening the Labour party’s own rules which prevent the
party from offering meetings with government ministers or senior party
personnel in exchange for sponsorship or donations, it is an issue which
needs more than just media debate.