UK politics

Lobbying and corruption

Being of cynical nature, I believe that most people can be bought for the ‘right’ price, and politicians are no exceptions: some are more cheaply bribed or easily manipulated than others. It may even be argued that MPs in Britain as a group are more cheaply corruptible than other professions, given the expenses scandals a while back, and the more recent revelations relating to a number of MPs certainly enforce such an impression. Mr Cameron had the foresight to predict lobbying as the the next big scandal waiting to happen a couple of years ago, and happen did it indeed, even if he had not acted on his own warning in terms of government legislation.

I do not think lobbying is in itself a problem, so long as it is transparent and it does not constitute bribery. As a political system cannot exist in some sort of vacuum, politicians will want to hear arguments from different quarters. Politicians should be able to hear representations from lobbyists, but then should make their own minds, and the electorate should have the right to know with whom their representatives met. A register of lobbyists would not make the process more transparent, unless it is made clear on whose behalf the lobbyists are lobbying. Most people would accept that different interest groups would want to influence the political discourse, and it would be legitimate to do so, so long as it occurs within the public sphere, in an open and honest fashion. In other words, lobbying is a form of public political discourse, which may be more targeted and effective than other means, such as media campaigns, protests, and petitions. Banning lobbying will not work, since it is a part of the process, and it will continue to exist in some form under a different name.

The problem lies if an MP receives money from lobbyists for doing something in his or her capacity as an MP. If the lobbyists tell the politicians what to say or do in parliament in return for money, then the politicians are bribed and become mere instruments of the lobbyists. That is corruption. Sometimes lobbying is given the gloss of consultancy, in which MPs act as consultants advising the lobbyists. In theory such an arrangement is fine, as some MPs can offer expert advice on certain matters, but it will require a scrupulous distinction on behalf of the MPs, who should not only narrowly observe the letter of the rules, but they should also adhere to the general principles and the spirit of the rules. It also has to be wondered, though, why else would lobbyists and their clients pay MPs, other than to influence the MPs in their capacity as MPs? More fundamentally, many voters may wonder how MPs find the time to work as consultants, when representing their constituents would seem like a full-time job: either the MPs are not devoting their time to the interests of their constituents, or they are being grossly overpaid for their almost non-existing consultancy work outside the parliament and not in the capacity of an MP.

The secrecy, deviousness, and the exchange of money in return for MPs’ work as MPs in the shady side of lobbying are very problematic. A totally transparent system is most unlikely to come into force, even with a register of lobbyists. In such instance, what could be done to reduce the case of corruption? What would be an effective deterrent? Facing the wrath of the electorate when they seek their re-election does not seem to be sufficient deterrent for the wayward MPs. When found out, they tend to hold on until the next general election, and not seeking re-election is deemed as punishment enough. As for the members of the House of Lords, they do not have to worry about re-election. The threat of imprisonment or dishonour does not seem to work either. If punishment, whether electoral, legal, or with regard to honour, is not sufficient to reduce corruptibility of politicians, perhaps they ought to be paid more so that the amount of money offered by lobbyists will not be enticing. The pay does not seem to match the power that MPs possess. However, it would be hard to convince the British public to agree to an increase in MPs’ salaries.