Focus: UK Lobbying - Setting up new house rules/Scottish and Welsh devolution means that lobbyists can establish operations in assemblies which are free of any previous parliamentary baggage. Virginia Matthews examines the implications

At the beginning of the next century, one of Labour’s key pre-election promises will become a reality when the 129 MSPs (members of the Scottish parliament) take their seats in a brand new parliament building in Edinburgh.

At the beginning of the next century, one of Labour’s key

pre-election promises will become a reality when the 129 MSPs (members

of the Scottish parliament) take their seats in a brand new parliament

building in Edinburgh.

That the new legislature will have a profound effect on businesses and

organisations throughout Scotland, as well as those UK and overseas firms

who have just a nodding acquaintance with life north of the border, is not

in doubt.

As far as its impact on the lobbying industry is concerned, consultancies

are having to get into gear to deal with the devolved parliament. Many

London-based consultancies at the very most will nominate one person to

handle all devolution issue enquiries by clients.

While some major lobbyists - such as Burson Marsteller and APCO - continue

to focus on their European and international work and consider Edinburgh

to be of less importance at this stage, some public affairs specialists

are so convinced by the potential importance of Scotland that they have

recently set up offices in Edinburgh.

One is Westminster Strategy, whose Strategy in Scotland (to have called it

Scottish Strategy would have triggered a mutiny among switchboard

operators says managing director Michael Burrell) was set up last


’We took three gambles in setting up our Scottish operation,’ says


’One was that Labour would win the general election in May, the second was

that the Scottish people would vote yes to devolution and the third was

that the parliament there would be given tax-varying powers. I’m glad to

say that all three gambles have paid off.’

Robbie MacDuff is the managing director of Strategy in Scotland. He

believes that the traditional Westminster lobbying scene will be all but

turned on its head in Edinburgh for three key reasons: ’Firstly,

proportional representation is written into the system. There will be far

less whipping of MSPs than there is of MPs, and far more lobbying of

individuals rather than whole parties.

’Secondly, we are talking about a consultative chamber - one which is

information and technology-driven and one which will demand a far more

mature and responsible reaction than is often the case with


’Thirdly, Scotland is a huge opportunity for public affairs per se.

Although the country has a mature PR industry, public affairs is virtually

unknown north of the border. Our industry will begin there with a

virtually clean slate.’

While MacDuff says he is ’rather pleased that Strategy in Scotland has so

few competitors’ - GPC Market Access, PS Public Affairs and PPS being the

key players at present - he notes that other consultancies may be tempted

to ’do Scotland’ on the cheap.

’We have heard about several consultancies who don’t believe Scotland is

important enough to have its own office, but which are concerned not to

look as though they are ignoring Edinburgh altogether. Consequently they

are putting one London-based person in charge of Scotland. That will never

work.’ He adds: ’If you want to be taken seriously in Edinburgh you need

Scottish knowledge as well as a Scottish telephone number and e-mail

address. Anything less will look like an insult.’

While Strategy in Scotland has just three people so far, MacDuff is

confident that the start-up will naturally develop as more accounts come

on board.

His clients already include the Scottish Tourist Board, Scottish Airports,

Unison, North of Scotland Water and East of Scotland Water.

MacDuff makes the point that the Edinburgh parliament, in starting afresh,

has a chance to aim for the ’transparency and accountability’ in its

operations that has eluded Westminster in the past.

His view is echoed by Jane Saren, Edinburgh-born managing director of GPC

Market Access Scotland, set up just before Christmas 1996. Saren, who

heads a team of four, believes that ’Scotland offers us a chance to do

things differently and to genuinely understand and act on the principles

of Nolan.’ She adds: ’Being a single-chamber body, it’s to be hoped that

things will be right from the beginning.’

Like MacDuff, Saren -whose client list includes the Edinburgh Chamber of

Commerce and Enterprise - warns that consultancies expecting to wait until

the final moment before entering the new Scottish marketplace might find a

frosty reception: ’There is a real danger that people who wait until the

end of 1999 to set up a decent operation will look like opportunists.

While it is true that firms up here do need strategic public affairs,

there may well be some understandable resentment up here if that’s how the

London consultancies go about giving it.’

Shandwick in Scotland can’t be accused of opportunism - it has arguably

been the largest PR consultancy in the country for more than 15 years now,

employing 55 people in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow. Managing director

John Gerrie says: ’People don’t realise how strong an economy Scotland is.

It ranks alongside London and Frankfurt in terms of where Europe’s money

is controlled and it is also the oil capital of Europe.

’While we already do what I would regard as public affairs work for our

retained clients in Scotland, the Scottish parliament is going to expand

those opportunities greatly. And that’s why we will be hiring at least two

public affairs specialists for this agency before the end of this


Access to MSPs and the lines of influence are still to be established,

however. The Scottish Foundation says that the White Paper itself provides

’little guidance as to how the parliament will operate and what its

members will do’.

Craig Harrow - account director for PPS’ Edinburgh office, which was set

up in May this year - says that, in the initial stages, Scottish lobbyists

will work together and sit down with ministers ’to ensure that a structure

is put in place that is a benefit to everyone’.

In the meantime, Harrow is busy lobbying local government in Scotland for

clients such as Sainsbury and Railtrack as well as property developers

making planning applications.

While Westminster Strategy’s Burrell agrees that Scotland is causing

ripples of interest in London, the prospect of the Welsh Assembly, which

like the Scottish Parliament is due to open for business in January 2000,

has not evoked such a powerful reaction.

’Scotland not only has a far larger economy; but it also has the prospect

of a parliament with genuine legislative and tax-varying powers,’ says

Burrell. ’In comparison, the Welsh Assembly has been compared with a

glorified county council.’

The main consultancies offering a full public affairs service in Cardiff

(there are ad hoc individuals) are Lowe Bell Good Relations, Golley Slater

and Wales and Westminster, set up two-and-a-half years ago as a sister

firm to Cardiff-based Quadrant PR. With a client list that includes the

Cardiff Bay Development Corporation and CableTel South West, Quadrant

partner Peter Duncan says that the firm is expecting ’major growth in this

market over the next few years’.

He adds: ’Rather than being worried by people from London sniffing around,

we welcome it. The truth is that we are better placed than anyone else to

pick up the new business that will inevitably come with the setting up of

the Welsh Assembly.’

However, Mike Craven, managing director of Market Access, believes that

Wales will not see a major increase in lobbying work. ’Demand for

consultancy services will be slower because of the assembly’s powers

being so limited,’ he says. ’But in Scotland I truly believe that the

sky is the limit.


Although Labour abandoned its railway re-nationalisation programme

before the general election, comments made by senior party figures both

before and after the May victory left the Association of Train Operating

Companies (ATOC) - which represents the 25 private train firms - in

little doubt that Labour would find it hard to love the private rail


Working closely with ATOC’s senior management, it was left to Westminster

Strategy to help position ATOC more in line with the new Government’s

thinking on such issues as the reduction in road traffic congestion and

the gradual increase in rail use; finding common ground on which the two

organisations could base future discussions.

Just after the election, Westminster Strategy helped ATOC to produce a

briefing for the new Government on the organisation’s work and


The briefing helped to lay foundations for a new partnership between an

organisation which had always had the support of the previous Tory

administration and a new Government that inevitably treated it with some


Early ministerial statements calling for more regulation of private rail

operators were handled with a series of ATOC statements making it clear

that over-regulation had its own dangers, while also paving the way for

constructive dialogue on a new regulatory regime.

ATOC’s urgent priority after the election was for face-to-face meetings

with the new Department of Transport team. Westminster Strategy arranged

briefings with Transport Ministers Gavin Strang and Glenda Jackson and

future sessions are, it says, already arranged. The consultancy says that

comments made during media interviews following the Labour Conference

debate on transport ’bear testament to this positive approach’.

While the privatised rail companies have come in for sustained attack by

the regulatory authorities, consumer groups and the media, Westminster

Strategy has worked with ATOC so that it responds to criticism effectively

- accepting that some criticism is legitimate, while rebutting misleading

or erroneous attacks.

Ivor Warburton, ATOC’s new chairman, and Jane Gordon, director general,

have been positioned as the ’constructive voice of the passenger rail

industry’, says the consultancy, and have been used by all sections of the

media including Radio 4’s Today programme.

Current work includes the preparation and rehearsal of an ATOC delegation

which is to give evidence to the inquiry of a House of Commons Transport

Sub-Committee into the proposed Strategic Rail Authority and railway


ATOC’s new prospectus ’Changing Trains’,produced with the help of

Westminster Strategy, has already been well-received by Ministers and

civil servants at the Departments of Environment and Transport.


As recently as two years ago, it was official Labour Party policy to

abolish the historic, but misunderstood Corporation of London.

Unimpressed by, and inexperienced in, the workings of the City the average

(Old) Labour backbencher considered abolition of the body which governs

the Square Mile - and which has rather more than its fair share of

glittering functions for the rich and privileged - as little more than a

fair tit-for-tat for the Tories’ culling of the peoples’ Greater London

Council some years before.

Alarmed at the rumours of its imminent demise, the Corporation hired

Shandwick Public Affairs to both explain the importance of its role to

Labour and to argue for its long-term retention.

’The fact that the Corporation runs the Barbican Arts Centre, Hampstead

Heath and other jewels in the crown of Britain’s cultural and social life

came as something as a surprise to Old Labour,’ says Colin Byrne,

Shandwick Public Affairs managing director, ’and it was our job to educate

the Party about its many important functions.’

’Once they learned that the Corporation also played an invaluable role in

marketing the City overseas, and ensuring, among other things, that London

remains one of the key financial centres of the world, the Party began to

look at the Corporation with new eyes,’ he says.

By the end of 1995, the then Opposition Leader Tony Blair was sufficiently

converted to the merits of the Corporation to symbolically give it his

blessing by addressing the massed ranks of the City establishment at a

packed Guildhall. It was a turning point in the relationship between

Labour and the money-makers.

In the final 18 months of Blair’s Opposition, says Byrne, the Corporation

of London worked closely with the Labour team on such issues as the

regeneration of London and the future of London Transport. As Blair and

Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown sought to strengthen still further their

support in the City, talk of the Corporation’s abolition was quietly


Since they came to power, the Labour administration has notably

strengthened its links with the Corporation it once sought to destroy.

Says Byrne: ’They are giving valuable advice to Labour on a number of key

issues such as the future governance of London and the importance of the


’An organisation which was treated with great mistrust by Labour only

three years ago is now regularly canvassed for its opinions. Mistrust

has given way to mutual respect.’


Early on in Tony Blair’s premiership, he indicated that he wanted to

simplify and speed up planning law. While Labour has so far not produced

detailed proposals on how it intends to reform the current regulations,

it is currently consulting local government experts and other interested

parties on how planning applications can be made more user-friendly.

Nick Keable, director of Policy Planning Services (PPS) believes that the

new Labour Government may well offer a more cohesive planning route in

future, but he also notes that with careful handling, sensitive planning

applications can already be guided through to acceptance.

American company Computer Associates - the second largest computer company

in the world in terms of business software - wanted to set up a European

headquarters in Datchet in Berkshire. But the problem it faced regarding

getting planning permission was that its two chosen sites , which were

adjacent, were a Ministry of Defence site which had a listed building and

parkland, and a Calor gas site - both in the green belt. It was also right

beside the village of Datchet which had its own traffic problems.

To counter these obstacles, PPS launched a large-scale public information

campaign which included exhibitions and leaflets as well as the lobbying

of parish, district and county councillors, local MPs, government

ministers, and MoD officials right up to Cabinet level. It also lobbied a

myriad of agencies which deal with inward investment, such as London First

and the Invest in Britain Bureau.

To deal with the traffic problem, PPS carried out a study on where

Computer Associates’ 500 staff lived, and worked out that the traffic

implications for the village of Datchet were minimal.

The crux of the campaign, however, was when PPS managed to ’massage the

planning legislation’, according to Keable, by adding the two sites

together to become one site so it didn’t matter where the buildings went -

as long as they weren’t near the MoD site’s listed building.

A key element was to ensure that the planning authority - in this case the

district council - was backing the proposal, and to make sure that Cabinet

pressure was brought to bear on the MoD and the Department of the


The deal went through and got unanimous planning permission last


This will bring a pounds 100 million investment into the region -

including extras such as the restoration of listed buildings and parklands

- and it saved 500 people their jobs, and the company avoided having to

relocate elsewhere in Europe.

Keable says: ’Careful planning and the shrewd identification of the key

people who held the power, and by bringing in the power to bear at the

right moment, was key to the success of the operation.’


The ongoing war of words between Downing Street press secretary Alastair

Campbell and members of the Government Information Service (GIS) -

resulting in a series of high profile resignations - has caused much

debate over the claim that Labour apparatchiks are trying to politicise

the Whitehall information machine for their own ends.

But what do leading lobbyists think about the situation? According to some

consultancies, the so-called lessons in spin now being forcibly swallowed

by departmental press officers reflect a difference in culture rather than

a crude desire to force GIS members to plaster the media with good news

about Tony Blair.

Gill Morris, managing director of GPC Market Access, says: ’Most of the

new Ministers have never worked in Government before and are used to

looking after their own diaries, mobile phones and indeed lives.

’Some of them are rather intimidated by the knowledge that there is this

huge administrative staff, including press officers, just waiting to be

told what to do, and they aren’t sure how to play things,’ she says.

’On their side, the civil servants themselves are used to doing things in

the way that the last lot of Ministers wanted them done. After 18 years in

power, the Tory approach has obviously left its mark on the information

service and it’s going to take longer than six months for them to get to

grips with how Labour like things to be arranged.’

What no one appears to deny is that the Labour way of doing things does

appear to get results. During its 18 years in the political wilderness,

the Labour publicity machine seems to have learned how to manage the media


The prospect that Ministers and their media-savvy advisers should now put

away their feverish spinning wheels in favour of the more gentlemanly

publicity tools of the civil service is, as one junior Minister puts it,

’like suggesting that we should allow House of Commons switchboard

operators to dictate party policy’.

According to Colin Byrne, managing director of Shandwick Public Affairs:

’During the Tories’ reign, there was clear manipulation and politicisation

of civil servants, many of whom felt as if they were disregarded and


What we are seeing now is the desire to present policies clearly and

effectively to the electorate who gave Labour an overwhelming mandate to

act and to make changes.’

He adds: ’Alastair Campbell is a highly effective operator and, as far

as I know, members of the GIS are tremendously excited to be working

with him.’

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