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
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
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
‘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.