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09 December 2011

On lobbying

I often find myself denying it. Usually at social gatherings where I meet new people and I am asked: "So, what do you do?" I've developed a little patter that explains my job. I explain that I represent Christians to parliament and government, but the response is often the same: "You're basically a lobbyist then?" 

And I guess I am. Except I usually try and avoid the term, opting instead for something more diplomatic, something less likely to attract sneers and criticism. The revelations the Independent has published this week  will perhaps give you some measure of sympathy for such hesitancy.  

I could make all sorts of arguments in my defence. I could suggest the causes I work for are considerably more just than the massaging of Uzbekistan's human rights record. I could look to the Bible and the examples of Mordecai and Esther, Joseph and Daniel - people who had the ear of the King. But I still feel tainted by association.  

On one level, the allegations are hardly shocking: 'top lobbyists claim to influence PM'. After all, one of the main purposes of lobbying is to influence politicians, and surely the best and most well-paid would at least claim they could reach the very top of the pile.  

However, the reaction that came out of 10 Downing Street gave us an insight into how toxic the label of lobbyist has become: "It simply isn't true to say Bell Pottinger or any other lobby company has influenced government policy. Clearly it is in their interests to tell their clients that they can provide them with a service, and that is what they appear to be doing." 

For the prime minister's spokesperson to claim that lobbyists had no influence is surely beyond credibility. I don't want the government to be above influence. I want them to listen and to act in response. A government should hear what people are saying. But not just people with the money to pay for a million-pound lobbying contract, or former colleagues now nestling in the comfortable chairs afforded by their contact book. 

How much of relationship do we miss when this is how we view them? When we view each relationship by what we can get out of it. When a meeting with someone we don't yet know is more of a chance to exchange business cards than to understand who that person is. When networking is about 'working the room', meeting as many people as possible, preferably in order of importance, and doing one's utmost to avoid getting nailed into one conversation for too long.  

When this is what relationships are about, is it any wonder that we feel lonely and that half a million older people will spend this Christmas alone? 

Relationship management is not a grubby little business of trading contacts for money, or selling whatever ideas or business will net you the biggest profit. Politics has to be about a lot more than that. There has to be a human, authentic, transparent way of relating to each other, a way that sees every person as created in the image of God and not as commodities to help you get ahead. 

Relationships are about knowing others and being known. They are not always mutually beneficial. They may be marred by hurt and pain, and heartache and disaster. They are about arguments over how long the turkey will take and they are the joy we feel when we see our family again. They are about knowing a person, and not just their phone number.  

And at the time when perhaps we remember this the most, relationships are about God with us.


Danny Webster, parliamentary officer