Public Affairs: New friends and foes

Lobbyists are weighing up the new influx of MPs, sorting the potential allies and enemies, says Claire Murphy.

It is not just the fresh intake of ministers who are finding their feet at Westminster. For the UK's public affairs practitioners, the arrival of 121 new MPs after the general election has prompted the usual scramble to fish out likely allies.

Many lobbyists were sad to see the loss of Labour MPs Stephen Twigg (Enfield Southgate) and Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) in the May vote. Both had public affairs experience and 'understood the system and how policies are formed', says Weber Shandwick Worldwide Public Affairs managing director Jon McLeod.

Elsewhere, Labour MP Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) was a particularly big loss to the children's lobby - 'he was our most reliably interested and informed MP,' says The Children's Society assistant director of policy Kathy Evans.

But now attention turns to the new blood. Some will be prioritised for their contacts: Ed Balls, Gordon Brown's former economic adviser, is probably the new MP (for Normanton) lobbyists would most like to have a drink with.

For the rest though, it is a case of working out who will be sympathetic to specific causes.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Take George Galloway, for example.

Although he is now regarded as one of the new kids on the block through his representation of the Respect party - despite his many years' experience as a minister - it would be a brave lobbyist to try to sway his opinion.

A spokesman for the Bethnal Green MP says although he receives an enormous amount of mail, relatively little of it is from lobbyists: 'Most people know George isn't easily persuaded.'

Other MPs, however, are deemed to be more approachable. Lobbyists have been keen to contact Justine Greening, the new Conservative MP for Putney, who has become a poster child for the resurgence of her party in the election. Greening's secretary reports that her postbag comprises up to 70 per cent letters from public affairs people. 'To be honest, they'd be better off waiting a while and getting in touch with her after she's settled in,' she advises.

No time to lose

But there is little time available for lobbyists. With 43 bills planned to be passed in this parliament, the Government has set itself an ambitious legislative programme for Tony Blair's supposed final term. For PA agencies, the broad range of these bills means many clients will be affected. The Police Federation, for example, represented by Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, needs to have its views represented on upcoming legislation for criminal justice and ID cards.

And with the Government's majority slimmed down from 161 to 67, some believe lobbyists have a better chance of tapping in to the greater influence of backbenchers. 'The Government's previous heavy majority meant that a lot of lobbying had become focused on the House of Lords or at the pre-policy stage in the think-tanks,' says McLeod. 'But this slim majority creates a lot of excitement. There's an opportunity for a well-co-ordinated parliamentary campaign to make its effect felt, especially on those issues of real principle where new MPs will be keen to make their opinions heard.'

McLeod points to the upcoming bill to abolish juries in serious fraud cases as likely to provoke many backbenchers into wielding their power to disagree with the proposals. 'That has the potential to be a parliamentary battle royale,' he adds.

Evans expects heavy politicking from Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs 'if they can detect any scent of rebellion in the Labour backbenches'. This, she adds, can present tactical opportunities for lobbyists to make friends they would not usually expect to have: 'It's about parties as much as principles.'

No one, however, believes backbenchers' power is suddenly going to rule the roost. Labour's whip system is expected to be well enforced, with the party keen to maintain what is expected to be an orderly transition from Blair to Brown.

Lobbyists believe their main advantage lies in the fact that the Government is keen to be perceived as listening to all interested parties. 'Labour was shocked by the scale of its losses in the election,' says Ann Robinson, partner at Rush Communications and former chairman of Energywatch. 'It understands now that it makes sense to be seen as open to consultation.'

Robinson believes that the trick for lobbyists will be to 'pick battles carefully'. She adds: 'There's no point in going to the government departments with a huge wish list weighed down in detail. Far better to present three or four big issues and show how your clients can help achieve the objectives.'

Robinson points to climate change, education, public services and regulation as being the four major areas underlying the Government's legislative programme.

Many lobbyists cite select committees as being a good indicator of the issues in which the new backbench MPs are interested - but they will have to wait until the autumn to discover the make up of these committees.

The autumn will also bring the latest edition of the lobbyists' bible, Parliamentary Profiles. Written by former spy Andrew Roth, the journal contains biographies of ministers and intelligence on their known affiliations and views.

Some observers believe lobbyists should concentrate on planning for a Brown-led government.

'The government of Brown will be very different to that of Blair,' says Bell Pottinger Public Affairs managing director Peter Bingle. 'Public affairs people need to adopt a twin-track approach of managing the current legislative programme, while identifying the main players around Brown and the groups that are likely to have an influence on him.' Bingle adds that he expects a resurgence in the power of trade unions under Brown.

In the meantime the post continues to pile up in the Westminster and constituency offices of new MPs, as lobbyists seek to find new friends and influence people.



The National Pharmaceutical Association represents the interests of the UK's 11,000 independent pharmacies. Its Westminster lobbying activity is primarily channelled through the All-Party Pharmacy Group, which is recruiting for members from the recent intake of MPs. Head of PR Judy Viitanen has already sent invitations and briefings to new MPs. The NPA is interested in two draft bills in the currrent programme - the Health Improvement and Protection Bill and the Primary Care Services Bill, both of which include provisions to give more power to pharmacies.


Although the Hunting Bill was passed in the last parliament there are three bills on the current agenda that are of interest to the Countryside Alliance. The Animal Welfare Bill, which threatens restrictions on game rearing; the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which proposes limits on the ownership of air rifles; and the Marine Bill, which could result in licences being required for sea anglers. Lobbying is focused around the alliance's 100,000 members. Campaigns co-ordinator Darren Hughes is educating members how best to go about this.


The group that campaigns for smokers' rights was dealt a blow last month when it emerged that Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt favours a blanket ban on smoking in public places - a much tougher line than that taken by her predecessor, Dr John Reid. Forest now plans a summer of campaigning to MPs and journalists, pointing out the supposed public opposition to such a ban. MPs will be sent mailers of ads placed in current affairs magazines. 'They'll be hearing from us at least once a week,' warns Forest director Simon Clark.

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