Platform: Why it’s goodbye lobbying, hello new public affairs - Traditional lobbyists are likely to find themselves frozen out in favour of versatile public affairs practitioners, says Peter Bingle

As in all debates, there is a danger that opposing sides take up extreme positions in order to make their point. This appears to be happening in the debate about lobbying the New Labour Government.

As in all debates, there is a danger that opposing sides take up

extreme positions in order to make their point. This appears to be

happening in the debate about lobbying the New Labour Government.



There is also a danger that ’specialists’ produce an analysis of the

situation which suits their own interests. Therefore, media specialists

argue that the media has suddenly assumed a new importance and

consultancies with ’ethical lobbying’ or ’strategic lobbying’ as their

USPs argue that they have found the lobbying equivalent of the Holy

Grail.



Serious lobbying of the Labour Party is not a new concept. It goes back

to the days of Neil Kinnock’s leadership. It is important to remember

that it was widely assumed for most of John Major’s early premiership

that Neil Kinnock would win the 1992 election. Key figures within the

Kinnock shadow administration were therefore targeted by outside

interests, including lobbyists.



The same process continued under John Smith and has developed under Tony

Blair. For lobbyists, the Blair leadership has posed a fascinating

challenge.



Here was a leader determined to fundamentally change his party - but to

do so in a way that kept it together. Some of the work had been

undertaken by Kinnock and Smith but Blair inherited a party that was

still Old Labour.



For lobbyists, the challenge was to understand Blair’s real agenda, to

analyse the internal pressures on him, to pinpoint the real figures of

influence and then to predict the party’s likely development on key

policy areas. There were real opportunities to participate in the

development of party policy and a willingness to include and involve

outside interests.



These were heady days for lobbyists. The business community and other

key sectors knew that change was about to happen but were uncertain

about its nature. They needed advice on the likely policy agenda and

help on dealing with the key decision makers. The old days of lunch at

the Carlton Club were to become as irrelevant to lobbying as socialism

was to become to New Labour. For lobbyists, the 1997 election did not

suddenly create New Labour - it turned it from a dream into a reality.

The interest was whether New Labour in power had the courage of its

convictions.



Imagine the lobbyist who has wonderful contacts but who is unable to

advise his clients on their messages, arguments, timing and third-party

advocates. He may well be able to arrange a meeting with key advisers

but it is unlikely that any adviser will agree to a second meeting.



Equally, imagine a lobbyist who has devised a creative strategy for his

client but is bereft of any serious political contacts within the new

Government. The campaign is unlikely to be a success.



The new Government is likely to force the lobbying industry to

regroup.



There are too many players in an overcrowded marketplace. It is also

debatable whether narrowly-focused lobby shops have a future. Already,

our clients are demanding a much wider range of public affairs skills -

not just Westminster-based lobbying, rather an issues management

approach.



Public affairs in the post-Nolan age is exciting. The new order

resembles in many ways the early days of Margaret Thatcher’s first

administration.



One day, of course, the Blair administration will itself become the

ancien regime.



For public affairs practitioners, the challenges of new advisers, a

large majority, an all-powerful Prime Minister and a still unclear

policy agenda will keep us on our toes. As before, our skill will be to

combine communication skills with an in-depth understanding of the

working of government and the ability to get beneath the skin of New

Labour.



The combination of quality strategic advice and quality political

contacts will separate the first-rate public affairs consultant from the

second-rate lobbyist. Those who argue differently are being

disingenuous.



Peter Bingle is managing director of the Government and political

affairs division at The Communication Group



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