The right to lobby is part of our freedoms, it’s essential to democracy that people can express, promote and advocate for a point of view or a cause that they believe in.
Everyone is a lobbyist, or they should be, yet so often those who lobby professionally are cast in the role of the evil demons who are against the wider public interest. It is suggested that lobbying is a questionable profession, but then if you disagree with someone, you will want to discredit what the other is saying, so it’s hardly surprising.
It’s regrettable that some members of the profession revel in the stereotype cast by the distractors of advocacy. I worked with an agency who described the business as “Sleaze Merchants”, they suggested that they used the “Dark Arts” and “Knew people”. I didn’t stay there long and ironically it was all talk, all made up. And even funnier, is that genuine engagement is far more powerful than any of the “Dark Arts” that some expound to attract prospective clients.
Everyone has a right to lobby those in power for the causes or views that matter to them and lobbying is expressed in many different ways. Some write letters to their MPs and express their views in lengthy and detailed missives. Others join pressure groups and support campaigns that demand action or promote views to Parliament. Others join political parties and take those quiet moments at fundraising events to bend the ear of elected members to share their views. They are all lobbyists.
Lobbying is not just a pursuit for those connected with the political world. People lobby in the workplace – for promotion, for their ideas, and for better working conditions for their colleagues.
It is even seen in our homes, the decisions on where to spend our summer holidays and what family members want for their birthdays and Christmas presents. Some of the best lobbying I have been on the receiving end has been from my son, but more about that later.
Sometimes I wish I could avoid answering the question “So what do you do?” I have tried to say I work in PR, or I am a Strategic advisor, both of which are true. Then on occasions I give up and say, “I am a lobbyist!” to be greeted with “Oh you’re one of those are you”, as the person scans the room for someone else to talk to. It annoys me as I am proud of what I do.
As for the ethics of being a lobbyist, I can only speak of my views. I cannot represent a client or a project I do not believe in; several times I have had to fire clients or resign from projects where there has been a lack of respect for those whose support they sought, or they had no intention of honouring their commitments. It’s not easy to walk away from work and it’s always been when I could least afford it.
Our team at Cratus cannot look decision makers and communities in the eye, without knowing that our clients are sincere and genuine, it’s impossible to be advocates for a project that does not deserve support.
We have always had a robust code of conduct; it is not window dressing. Several times we have walked away from work because the opportunity failed to meet the tests set out in our code. This has been further strengthened by our membership of the PRCA.
When communities are confronted by new developments or changes to their services, they quickly come together as a united voice against the proposals. As they do, they become lobbyists.
They are lobbying for their views in exactly the same way as those who are seeking to win planning consent or change services. Communities ignore this fact and enjoy deriding their opposition as “being underhand” by lobbying the decision makers, while they adopt the same campaign methods to lobby against a proposal. Often with no transparency, no code of conduct, and few verifiable facts to support their arguments!
I have learnt over the years to never underestimate a community group. There is always a lawyer among them, it’s been known for road traffic engineers to pop up, and someone with time on their hands can soon be the accomplished campaigner. Blogs and Twitter are easily set up, and websites and fundraising sites can all soon bring people together; the digital age has empowered even the smallest anti-lobby groups to access wide circles of people.
Where both sides of a debate can come together, then everyone involved can achieve so much. While resistance to new homes is widespread in the South of England, it remains a personal sadness that people fight more to stop them than take an active part in helping shape new homes and communities. Genuine engagement is what we always seek to achieve when we start any new project and, when it works, it’s the most rewarding thing.
There is no requirement for objectors to provide the same quality of evidence to support their statements. It’s true that campaigners may hire consultants on nationally important proposals like HS2 or the Stonehenge Tunnel, but it’s rare. A lack of evidence has never stopped an opposition group from repeatedly making false statements that are based on widely misleading assumptions that no developer would ever get away with. And the decision makers have to navigate themselves through the facts and fiction to make their decisions.
The energy and determination of an opposition group has often brought the best out in us at Cratus. Every time they raise their game, we follow by raising the bar ever higher at every stage of the campaign. Never underestimate local resident groups. We don’t and many have won our respect for the way they have engaged with our clients to express the concerns and aspirations of their fellow residents.
Once a year I get a phone call from a national newspaper. They want to rework the story that lobbyists are bad. Where there has been wrongdoing, in nearly all cases, they have been found out or failed through their own actions to achieve their goal. The PRCA has shown in its handling of Bell Pottinger that their members are held to the highest standards, and we are proud to be members for that reason.
The reality is that the majority of our decision makers are well supported, and they are aware of their responsibility. Their officers or civil servants provide them with the quality of advice that they need, and decisions are made correctly.
Lobbying helps by giving decision makers the reassurance that a project is supported and provides clarity on the benefits and opportunities that are offered.
The best lobbyists I have worked with are not among the leading lights of the public affairs world. Some in our profession are excellent (although their self-publicity can be amusing on their LinkedIn profiles), but the very finest lobbyists are more persuasive than the finest barristers at the bar and more emotional and compelling than a resident at a planning committee. Arguably the most expert lobbyists are children who have their heart set on something special.
My son who is now 13 has wanted a cat. He started work on his mission some three years ago. His love for my mother’s cat was shared at every opportunity and gentle questions as to why he couldn’t have a cat developed. He built up a significant campaign; he bounced back after being repeatedly told “NO”. During lockdown it was clear that as an only child it was not easy for him – this was a new opportunity to relaunch his campaign!
In a brief respite to the lockdowns, we took my mother to Southwold. As the week by the sea evolved, it was clear that Grandma had been recruited to support his campaign. This new support brought about a shock offer that if he signed an agreement to feed the cat and clean out the litter tray, then he could have a cat (but only if he agreed to look after it). Deal done; contract signed!
On the 18th of December 2020, Battersea delivered to our door a black tuxedo cat called Maxi. They have become firm friends. A three-year campaign was won, and bedlam was unleashed on our home.
Lobbying is not a dark art, it’s an important part of making our world better for all and not for the few. It’s a profession I am passionate about and proud of the many wonderful things I have helped become a reality. These include helping win recognition from the Prime Minister for our Nuclear Test Veterans and winning planning permission for a genuinely outstanding new community for people to live.
One final point. For two years, Cratus was engaged in a contentious campaign to win planning for the regeneration of a country estate into a golf course, hotel and restaurants. A small group of very capable and committed locals fought us all the way to the Supreme Court. Planning was won and the development opened a few years later. It’s absolutely stunning as promised and employs people from the local community and is enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.
I visited one of the restaurants for a client dinner after its opening. As I left the restaurant, the manager took me to one side and said, “We had one of the campaigners against you visit last week, their fifth such visit”. On the last occasion, my nemesis had said “We have needed something like this around here for years!”. I laughed and thanked him for sharing and chuckled as I walked to my car.
Everyone is a lobbyist, or they should be if they have a view on how we live our lives. To make a difference, one that benefits everyone, is worth the effort and the dedication.