Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why Should Lobbyists Fear Transparency Especially If They Are Lawyers?

I read Leibovich's book last week while I was on holiday. It both fascinated and horrified me. Although it's about Washington DC, it is also about London politics as it is now. Notice I don't say British politics, because following Leibovich's thesis this is a purely metropolitan issue in which the provinces (sticks) neither count nor even exist.

Leibovich details how everyone who comes to Washington is assimilated into the organism that is politics-lobbying-consulting-business. The Obama set were opposed to lobbying and special interests and made a big fuss about it. Before long Obama associates were spinning through the revolving door to capture book deals, TV commentator slots, and lucrative positions as lobbyists. While the US was reeling from the recession, Washington DC--This Town--basked in champagne receptions and endless valet parking, courtesy of the lobbying industry.

In a series of deft pen portraits Leibovich describes how politicians believe it their right to earn some serious money as lobbyists after having put in so many years of service in Congress. Maybe venal is too light a term for these blood-sucking parasites that infest the body politic. But they're here and they won't go away.

Of course it isn't much different in the UK. We now have a full-time political class that steps from university into jobs with think tanks to then become SPADS (special advisers to politicians) with the promise of a parliamentary seat at the end of it. All of our current leaders, David Cameron, David Milliband and Nick Clegg followed this route. And all of them will cash in when they step down. Just watch The Thick of It to get the idea.

Look at Tony Blair, a man on a global peace mission who won't refuse to work for any dictator. Who can be fairer than that? As a lawyer, he's trained to separate out difficult associations and he is also imbued with the ideals of the cab rank rule.

This came to mind when I read that City lawyers object to being registered for their lobbying activities. The City of London Law Society (which represents the big firms) claimed the consequences of registration would be burdensome and force them to breach client confidentiality. Their own codes of conduct were sufficient to regulate their behaviour in this field. Indeed, they provide much help in the legislative process:
The CLLS committee said lawyers play a vital role in testing the practicality of legislation and would feel inhibited from engaging with policymakers if proposed laws are passed.
Somehow these arguments aren't that persuasive. City lawyers have been lobbying government since at least the nineteenth century, if not before. Who is good at it and has access to the right quarters is well-known among lobbyists' users. Lawyers lobby just as other groups lobby and should be subject to the same conditions as other lobbyists. That includes registration. And regarding confidentiality, clients will have to rethink how they want to use their lawyer-lobbyists. I doubt there will be much difference.

Leibovich writes how when threatened with registration, lobbyists reclassified themselves as consultants. Apart from titles nothing tangible seemed to change.

I don't think City lawyers have made a strong case here. They will have to sign up like everyone else.


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