Politics is all about people using power to promote, advance, and defend their interests. Although political power involves either coercion, persuasion, or a combination of these, in the UK the state has a monopoly on legitimate coercive power. This means that others have to use persuasion to influence policy-makers to act favourably in regard to their interests. These efforts are called lobbying, and the people who actually do the lobbying are lobbyists.
The term lobbying originated in the early nineteenth century almost simultaneously in the UK and the US. It referred to loitering in the lobbies, cloakrooms, and hallways of the House of Commons and the Congress in order to buttonhole legislators. Since then, of course, lobbying has become much more sophisticated, with professionals employed by specialist lobbying firms arranging face-to-face meetings with policy-makers, providing research, making donations to parties’ election campaigns, and using mass-media advertising to whip up demonstrable public support for their positions in order to pressure policy-makers to favour them. Less well-resourced interests have to rely on more traditional petitions and letter-writing campaigns, and, more recently, emailing and viral social-media publicity campaigns.
Ideally, lobbying would serve its democratic purpose of providing competing interests with a means of communicating with legislators and regulators. The problems with this ideal include money, of course, and the advantages that being able to spend plenty of it gives to the already rich and powerful, that much lobbying takes place in private, reducing transparency in government, and the hiring of recent MPs and ministers to lobby their former colleagues.
How Much Influence, Then?
The rapid growth of professional lobbying since the mid-1990s to a more than £2 billion industry has been accompanied by a series of scandals involving conflicts of interest and corruption. The Government responded to a 2009 parliamentary report by requiring all departments to publish reports of ministerial meetings with lobbyists and of the hospitality that ministers and their officials accept, but its response to a recommendation for a statutory lobbying-activity register was to call for greater self-regulation. Lobbyists therefore still have, as always, as much influence as they can garner.
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