Peter Bingle, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs: Mastering the new politics

The industry is on a steep learning curve when it comes to advising clients about the coalition.

Peter Bingle, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs: Mastering the new politics
Peter Bingle, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs: Mastering the new politics

These are challenging times. The creation of the coalition has given the public affairs industry the opportunity to demonstrate real added value. Yet much of the industry is woefully unprepared to meet the challenge.

There is still a New Labour time warp in which far too many consultants and their in-house counterparts are trapped. The industry needs to grow up, adapt to the new politics and move on. Tony and Gordon are no more.

There has also been too great a dependence among public affairs agencies on public sector clients for business. That particular gravy train has finally dried up. There may well be some major casualties as a result.

Lobbying on behalf of local government will come to an end. At a time when local government faces cuts of 40 per cent, it will be a brave council leader who tries to justify to local voters that it is a good use of their money to retain a public affairs consultancy.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is a formidable minister. Local government communications and PR departments may well soon become a thing of the past. We need to look elsewhere for business.

The coalition has completely transformed the political landscape. What was certain on 6 May is no longer certain. Chief executives who were used to dealing with Shriti Vadera and Geoffrey Norris (former advisers to Gordon Brown) are now having to develop new relationships. Their consultants must be able to assist them or they have no added value. The future of the industry lies in providing high-value strategic advice, not low-level monitoring.

It was clear at the party conferences that much of the industry is on a steep learning curve when it comes to advising clients about the coalition. Both the PM and the Deputy PM have transformed their respective parties. To advise on the likely future policy direction of the coalition, we need to instinctively understand the mindset of the key players in both parties.

This requires input from people who have played a part in creating the new politics and can second guess what their ex-colleagues will do. It is no easy task. It is, however, essential.

The new politics is exciting. Coalition politics converging with massive public spending cuts provides the industry with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dazzle. To understand the new politics is to master it.

The commercial opportunities are enormous. To become a reality, however, the industry needs to shed itself of its New Labour garments and acquire some new clothing. Blue with a dash of yellow is rather attractive. It is more fetching than the dark red of the Labour Party under Ed Miliband.

The Labour Party under Ed Miliband is likely to be out of power for some time. Yet the public affairs industry must engage with the new generation of shadow cabinet ministers and their policy aides. Our business is based on long-term relationships. All the more reason to develop them right at the start of a new regime. At some stage in the future, the Labour Party will once again have a role in national government.

After years of introspection, infighting and naval gazing, the public affairs industry has finally come out of the shadows. It should be a key part of the commercial armoury of every major business in the UK. Our job is to deliver commercial advantage for our clients. As businesses across the UK struggle to come out of recession, our professional advice and services have never been more valuable to them.

We have the opportunity to redefine our role in both the boardroom and the body politic. Let's not blow it.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

- Which public sector budget cut is likely to be the toughest for the Government to push through?

Small local level cuts that people can identify with. It is easy to cut projects worth billions, much harder to cut a local community group grant worth £5k.

- Who would make the better lobbyist - David or Ed Miliband?

David, although in truth I would counsel both of them against it. You need to be non-partisan to be a good lobbyist.

- Which public sector organisation has made the best case for ringfencing its budget or minimising any cuts?

The MoD. Liam Fox has played a very dangerous but skilful political game defending his department from the Treasury. He chose to argue the case in the public domain. It has done him no harm with either Tory MPs or the military.

Peter Bingle is chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs

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