Political Lobbyist or Political Consultant: what is the difference and does it matter?

Whitehouse MD, Chris Whitehouse, explores the implications of the meaning of a word.

The vast majority of people probably don’t care a post-Christmas fig about the finer points of the semantic differences between the terms “political lobbyist” and “political consultant”. But if the Government is right that the light of transparency and openness should be shone upon political lobbying as demonstrated by their proposed legislation in this area, then the distinction really does matter.

If the proposed new law requires only “lobbyists” to register in the new Statutory Register, then we need to consider carefully what that means. The legislation itself requires that a consultant lobbyist is someone who “in the course of a business” makes communications either in writing or orally:

  • personally to a UK Government Minister or Permanent Secretary (a top senior civil servant)
  • about government policy, government legislation or government contracts etc
  • on behalf of another person (a client)
  • in return for payment.

Most public affairs consultancies such as the team here at The Whitehouse Consultancy would very rarely themselves be approaching a Government Minister. Indeed, like most political consultants we would be advising our clients on how to make such an approach themselves, even on occasion by helping them draft the necessary letters or preparing the appropriate political presentation.

Nor would most political consultancies be dealing with civil servants as senior as Permanent Secretary. On the contrary, we would be securing and arranging meetings with much more junior and middle-ranking officials who deal with the detail of policy formulation, policy development and policy implementation.

So, in almost every scenario in which political lobbyists are assumed to be involved, the nature and level of that involvement would put them outside the tests of the definition used in the proposed legislation to regulate political consultants. What is more, even were Whitehouse keen to register even though we do not technically meet that requirement, it would be an offence for us to do so since that would be to misrepresent the nature of our business.

Whilst at present, therefore, the Association of Professional Political Consultants has over 80 multi-client political consultancies in its membership, only 2 or 3 of these would in fact be included in the Government’s proposed new Statutory Register. The net result would be a fundamental reduction in transparency as a result of the introduction of the new system.

This problem would be further exacerbated since it would deny to public relations consultancies, crisis communications managers and others the opportunity to register. Whilst they may well be seeking to influence Government decisions, government policies, government contracts and government legislation, this would not be their main business so again they would not meet the definitions of the new law.

This is a dogs’ dinner of a project that should still be dropped, but, of course, it won’t be: politicians could not allow themselves to admit that they have simply got it wrong.