Editorial: Now a word about our sponsors

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’.

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

suspicious.



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.



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