June 3, 2013 By Rosanne White
My name is Rosanne, and I’m a lobbyist.
In the coming days and weeks, I fear that like the many bank workers before me who were entirely blameless for the financial crash, I’m going to be tarred with the same gnarly brush of sleaze and corruption whenever I happen to mention what I do for a living. Like religion and politics, it’ll be another thing not to mention during dinner, particularly ironic when you notice that I’m a parliamentary officer working for a Christian organisation.
Yet again, lobbying has come under the spotlight as an ignoble profession, attractive to those in search of power and a route into government, or those exiting the Whitehall scrum for a quieter office and final salary pension. As The Times undercover journalists clearly demonstrated this weekend, even at the epicentre of our democracy, there’s a lucrative market for the opportunistic.
Lobbying is about democracy. The thing that people forget is that MPs spend their time either on Westminster turf (in the House, in their office, in meetings, in the tea-room), or back in their constituency. If their constituency is outside of London, then they spend a lot of time on the train, possibly delayed and working their way through piles of casework queries from those people who elected them. I cannot imagine what it must feel like to bear the burden of countless people’s real dilemmas, homelessness, payday loans gone wrong, the threat of deportation. I can quite imagine lying awake at night, worrying and worrying and worrying. On top of that, MPs have to have an opinion on absolutely everything, from animal welfare to acute heart problems to energy policy and if they can’t answer immediately, are derided for being ‘out-of-touch’. Good MPs, and I maintain there are very many, literally carry the weight of the world around on their shoulders every single day.
Without meaning to appear sycophantic in my portrayal of the average MP’s life, the point I am making is that whatever you think of them, MPs are awfully busy and cannot, (however much we would like them to), keep up to date with absolutely every issue that concerns civil society, both nationally and globally. Which is where lobbyists come in. Put very simply, we keep MPs and peers in touch with civil society. We discuss the issues with them and provide the policy and research that they need to make a fuss in parliament, to ensure that they are standing up for the people who they were elected to represent. Yes they might ask parliamentary questions and yes they might decide to take action on an issue, but that’s because they believe it to be right, not because they are going to get paid. And we call them out too – lobbying is not about cosying up to power but more about challenging those who have the influence to use it in a way that can benefit civil society, whether it’s addressing poverty in the UK, or tackling global hunger, or fighting for greater equality for women.
For this reason, I am in favour of a statutory register for lobbyists. I have nothing to hide, after all. The European Parliament already has one and the political world hasn’t imploded. I’d find it interesting to know how many other interest groups are spinning through the doors of Portcullis House every day, if only as a demonstration of our bright and vibrant political culture. Transparency is a key issue on the UK Government’s agenda for the upcoming G8 summit and revisiting the issue of aggressive corporate lobbying is one of the ways we can show that we’re getting our house in order, perhaps a challenge for the Government’s Anti-Corruption Champion, Ken Clarke MP.
Clearly, the British political system is still cracked in places that require a full overhaul, and a spotlight on those bad apples, both parliamentarian and lobbyist, is no bad thing. But it’s far too easy, and lazy, to demonise us all.
May 8, 2013 By Rosanne White
The election count is the last hurdle on the road to success. It follows months of campaigning, knocking on (often hostile) doors in the waning light, drafting leaflets and bemoaning the invention of letterbox bristles. The checklist of local campaigner photos – fine specimens are to be found at glumcouncillors.tumblr.com – of the candidate pointing sternly at graffiti, dog muck, potholes(!) is completed and photoshopped in.
But most importantly in those months leading up to the election, campaigning makes it clear to local people why the candidate wants to be a local representative, the reason why they are pounding the streets night after night, sitting in the public pen at mind-numbing planning board meetings in the hope of raising an application issue with the elected members, and spending their time trying to improve matters in the area they love so much.
So it was with last week’s county council elections. Having followed elections over the years in more detail than is possibly rational, I normally have a good idea about how things will pan out. But Thursday night’s elections were the first time I’ve ever been uncertain about the outcome. Completely.
And the reason, now commanding column inches in every major UK newspaper, was Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party.
To be honest, I’m not sure why the rise of UKIP has come as such a surprise. The tremors have been felt for a while. Back in 2011, UKIP started to show up in the ballot boxes during local elections, a little like a pitch invasion after a cup final. Entertaining, but completely inconsequential. But in the parliamentary by-election in February of this year, whole streets in Eastleigh were suddenly going purple. Voters interviewed by the various news channels were saying that UKIP are the only party they can trust, that it’s time for honesty and action.
Honesty and action. Whether we like it or not, no politician or party is going to be able to give us any good news. It’s tighten-your-belts time and we all know it. But the “we’re all in it together” rhetoric of the months following the historic 2010 general election is taking more and more of a beating (particularly as we’ve found out that maybe the ‘all’ and ‘together’ bits weren’t that straightforward in the first place). So communities of geography, gender, belief, and employment are increasingly pitted one against another.
Rich political soil then for a party like UKIP, whose often puzzling policy is based upon exalting the bygone world of post-war Britain and (somewhat paradoxically), battening down the hatches against any outside influence.
So what does this mean for international development? I would suggest, perhaps controversially, that we have some lessons to learn from Farage and co.
Firstly, Farage keeps it simple. Policy is delivered genially, as if to friends in a country pub somewhere. No talk of predistribution, bedroom tax or deregulation. Instead, it’s making a change, improving living standards, leaving the EU. UKIP do not alienate through rhetoric. This of course, may well be down to the fact that we are yet to hear the more detailed aspects of UKIP’s headline policies – it will be interesting to see exactly how clearly Farage suggests the UK’s books should be balanced, or how standards should be raised in failing schools.
Understand the society we’ve got. I love that I work in a sector that idealises, working towards a fairer and safer future for the world’s poorest people. That said, we live in a country where a large number of people are (at least on the surface) not happy about the UK reaching its 0.7% aid target, that want to withdraw from the EU due to human rights law and think spending money on climate change adaptation is a waste. Instead of preaching to the converted and worrying about the lack of interest from huge swathes of the population, what would happen if we acknowledged people’s hostility to our cause, tried to understand why and worked to convince them of our position that way? In short, appeal to the society we have, not the one we wish we had.
Focus. We might not know what they think yet about the details of health policy and welfare reform, but everyone in this country knows what UKIP stands for – no more EU membership, getting rid of foreign aid, tooling up UK defence, protecting our ‘green and pleasant lands’ and restricting immigration. Very clear. It’s hard not to toss in the kitchen sink when talking about global poverty, purely because poverty is not simple. But in these straitened times, finding ways to make global poverty relate to the national and local remains one of our biggest challenges.
So back to the count. It’s 3am and the candidates are ready to go home. Normally, an election in such large wards would mean hours and hours of verification and counting. This time round, some candidates found that whole boxes only contained a handful of votes. 33% of the electorate turned out to vote in my home town. I’m not going to analyse why here because it’s a special kind of science, a PhD. But part of the reason so few people came out to vote is that however cliched, they need something they can believe in, messages that makes sense to everyone, whatever their occupation or intellect. And for some people, the voice they’ve always wanted finally has an incarnation in Farage, the self-made scourge of complicated, highly politicised messaging.
April 9, 2013 By Rosanne White
I was born in 1985. It was the year that Eastenders first graced our screens, the first mobile phone call was made and 13-year old Ruth Lawrence achieved a first in mathematics at Oxford, the youngest British person to ever get such a degree or graduate from the university.
It was also a year of rioting; with three million unemployed, a riot broke out in Brixton after an accidental shooting of a woman by the police. One person died, 50 were injured, countless were arrested.
And it was the year of Live Aid and the launch of Comic Relief.
One woman dominated the headlines when I was growing up. With remarkably coiffed hair and neat suits, she stood up in the House of Commons every week and took on the opposition at a time when very few women, even fewer mothers, could ever consider standing as a local Councillor, let alone an MP. Despite this seemingly miraculous turn of events, my mother wasn’t a fan – she was devastated at the death of David Penhaligon in 1986, later taking me to a rally when the leader of the newly formed Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, visited our little Somerset town.
With the news of her death, doubtless the media will now be given over these next few days to reflections on Baroness Thatcher’s life. We’ll learn more about her than we ever knew. We’ll be played old newsreels of her most fiery political exchanges, of Meryl Streep’s attempt to channel her energy. The left and right will fling Iron Lady-loaded grenades at each other across the parapets of Fleet Street and twitter and tumblr will be flooded with increasingly uncomfortable parodies.
But for me, the most surprising thing to note about Baroness Thatcher, (or Mrs Thatcher as she was then), was that she was one of the first western leaders to make her concerns clear about climate change. At the Second World Climate Conference she said this:
“Our ability to come together to stop or limit damage to the world’s environment will be perhaps the greatest test of how far we can act as a world community. No-one should under-estimate the imagination that will be required, nor the scientific effort, nor the unprecedented co-operation we shall have to show. We shall need statesmanship of a rare order.”
Barnstorming stuff. And she didn’t stop there. Later, she said:
“It would be absurd to adopt policies which would bankrupt the industrial nations, or doom the poorer countries to increasing poverty. We have to recognise the widely differing circumstances facing individual countries, with the better-off assisting the poorer ones”.
Margaret Thatcher gave that speech on November 6th 1990 (if you’re not keeping up, I was just five years old). Now on my way to 30, and the UN climate talks heading into their 19th summit in December, I’m terribly sad that developed nations are still dancing around the issue of how to finance climate change adaptation for the poorest countries.
Back in 2011, world leaders sat down together and set themselves a deadline to come up with a legally binding agreement on climate change by 2015, including agreement on ways to fund climate change adaptation. In 2013, they are still a long way from achieving this, despite there being a number of options available, including a shipping levy, for raising the $100bn a year desperately needed by 2020.
2013 is the year for the UK to step up. We’ll be hosting the G8 summit of world leaders as well as a special Food and Hunger Summit which will hopefully address the root causes of poverty which mean that one in eight people go to bed hungry every night. What’s more, the Prime Minister is playing a lead role as the co-Chair of the panel advising the UN Secretary-General on the follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals. All opportunities to show real leadership on a global scale, to recognise the impact that climate change is having and will continue to have on the world’s poorest people if we fail to act. Whatever you think of her transformative and often destructive social and economic policy (and believe me when I say my opinions are strong), Mrs Thatcher recognised this. She recognised this 23 years ago.
Which leads me back to my childhood. Despite being born in the eighties, I really don’t consider myself to be one of Thatcher’s children. Instead, I guess I’m more of a Live Aid child – I’ve been brought up knowing about the significance of the Government’s commitment to deliver 0.7% GNI as lifesaving aid and been frustrated time and time again when it hasn’t been honoured. I still can’t quite believe it’s finally going to happen now. Then last week came the news that world leaders have struck a deal on a global arms trade treaty, an historic moment that as a child I never believed would come.
So it just goes to show that change can happen. I honestly believe that we can come up with a fair deal on climate change, one that benefits the world’s poorest people and makes sure that they can adapt to the onslaught of extreme weather. Right now, it just needs political will and a catalyst. Something I imagine Mrs Thatcher knew at least a little about.