ANALYSIS: PR people fall prey to the lure of Parliament

An extraordinary number of PR people seem to be finding their way into Westminster. Is it because of their highly developed sense of public duty, or is there some deeper motive?

An extraordinary number of PR people seem to be finding their way into

Westminster. Is it because of their highly developed sense of public

duty, or is there some deeper motive?



Much has been made of the role played by Peter Mandelson in the

presentation of New Labour to the electorate. But in party political

terms, the true parliamentary home of the PR practitioner is the

Conservative Party.



Of the Tories’ prospective candidates for the next general election who

do not already sit in the House of Commons, at least 17 currently work

in public affairs or communications. If one adds to that the number of

existing Conservative MPs seeking re-election who were lobbyists or PR

consultants before triumphing at the ballot box, the total comfortably

surpasses 20.



So why, relatively speaking, do so many PR practitioners try to make it

into the Palace of Westminster? And is it a good thing for the health of

our political system?



To answer these questions, it is important to divide the candidates into

three distinct types.



First there are the professional politicians - those who have become

lobbyists as a staging post on the way to the Commons. Frequently

candidates of this type will have started off as special advisers and

moved into lobbying as a way of building contacts and earning a crust

before reaching the Commons.



Second, senior lobbyists who may see some benefit to their business and

clients in gaining the experience, connections and esteem conferred by a

stint on the backbenches.



The third category of candidate differs from the other two in that they

are people who have established themselves in the commercial world

beyond the sway of Westminster before succumbing to its attractions.

David Cameron, head of corporate affairs at Carlton Communications (29-

year-old prospective parliamentary candidate for Stafford) and David

Edwards, the 30-year-old managing director of Edwards Communications

(PPC for Vale of Clywd) conform to this classification.



The first category, indicative of the growing professionalisation of

British politics, causes some public unease.



‘It’s always seemed unhealthy to me that youngsters go straight from

university into aspects of politics, whether it’s PR, party research or

being special advisers, without ever having done a real job in our old

friend the real world,’ says the Guardian’s political editor Michael

White.



‘People are going into Parliament because they see it as a profession

rather than because of a sense of public duty,’ adds Market Access

managing director Mike Craven.



It is clear some lobbyists see the campaign trail as the glittering

fast-track to contact with lots of influential people.



Though clearly one would not wish to impugn the motives ofsuch

prospective candidates, their presence in the House would surely enhance

the standing of their present employers.



In light of Nolan, those candidates hoping to advance the interests of

their clients by securing a seat will have to be exceptionally careful.



David Edwards, for one, urges anyone thinking of going into Parliament

solely for their own business interests to ‘think again’. Yet, in common

with many consultants, he feels his business will gain in some ways from

his time in the House. ‘We are not a lobbying business,’ says Edwards.

‘But lobbying might in the future be a sensible route to take.’



Peter Bruinvels, a former Conservative MP and proprietor of PR and

lobbying consultancy Peter Bruinvels Associates, is seeking to return to

the Commons as candidate for the Wrekin. His view is that as the owner

of his business he will be able to continue acting for his clients while

other lobbyists will be ‘inhibited’ by the rules laid down by Nolan.



The Conservative Party isn’t the only one to attract public affairs

specialists and PR consultants to stand as MPs. As Paul Richards, press

officer at the Association of County Councils and Labour PPC in

Billericay says: ‘There are increasing numbers on the Labour side as the

party reaches out beyond its traditional areas. Twenty years ago PPCs

would be union officials or councillors, now there are people coming in

from different backgrounds.’



Lorna Fitzsimons, just selected to fight in Rochdale for Labour, is one

of three PPCs at Rowland Sallingbury Casey. Chairman John Maples is also

fighting for the Tories in Stratford, while Stephen Twigg, who joined

the firm last month, is standing for Labour in Enfield Southgate.



Fitzsimons believes that the experience and contacts she will gain

fighting the seat will be invaluable to the consultancy. Should she get

in, she thinks she will still be an asset to her clients; despite Nolan.

‘The value to Rowland’s clients is that they’ve got one more person in

the house who really understands them,’ she says.



Edwards argues that communications people are an asset to Parliament in

an age where the marketing of policies has made it harder to identify

‘clear blue water’ between parties. John Barnes, lecturer in Government

at the LSE, agrees but suspects an eventual backlash.



‘In the short-term it’s going to be useful to the Conservative to

recruit this kind of candidate,’ says Barnes. ‘But there is a sense in

which these people are seen to be not taking part in the real world but

in representational politics. And in the medium term there may well be a

public and media backlash against that.’



Irrespective of Nolan, it seems that MPs with links to communications

consultancies will continue to use their position and experience in

Westminster to the advantage of their business interests. Presuming this

is all done in a way that is above board, there is nothing inherently

wrong here, but a whiff of any unacceptable activity will damage further

the reputations of two occupations which are already held in low regard

by the public: politician and lobbyist.



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