Lobbying firms are increasingly looking toward the Labour Party, as polls suggest they are on course to form a government after the next general election.
Two corporate lobbyists have seconded members of staff to work in the offices of shadow cabinet MPs in recent months, while two other firms have launched ‘Labour Units,’ which aim to connect their clients with the party. It comes after Keir Starmer gave a speech to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) last week, in which he boasted of meeting “more than a hundred CEOs in the last six months alone,” and described Labour as “not just a pro-business party but a party that is proud of being pro-business”.
Current lobbying rules mean there is no requirement to register lobbying of opposition parties, despite warnings from campaigners that this makes the democratic process less transparent. The head of the UK’s lobbying watchdog told MPs recently that extending the scope of lobbying legislation to include the shadow cabinet or opposition MPs would “make it a more comprehensive system”.
Labour’s use of lobbyists
Two firms listed on the register of consultant lobbyists have seconded staff to work in Labour MPs’ offices in recent months.
Weber Shandwick has seconded a member of staff to Annaliese Dodds’ office for six months, from September 2022 to March 2023, at a value of £55,800. The firm’s current clients include US snack giant Mondelez International and Offshore Energies UK, the body which represents offshore energy firms, predominantly in oil and gas extraction. According to the Public Affairs Register, the firm currently provides services to Amazon, outsourcing giant Serco and investment bank JP Morgan, among others.
Dodds is the shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and chair of the Labour Party, having previously served as shadow Chancellor. She has previously spoken out against corporate lobbying, and described the lobbying rules as “not fit for purpose under the crony Conservatives”.
The Lowick Group seconded a parliamentary assistant to shadow Business Secretary Jonathan Reynolds’ office for a total of 26 working days between 5 September and 28 October, at a value of £3,392.35. This came after NatWest Group provided a staffer to Reynolds for five months, from March to August, at a value of £15,181.83. In both cases the member of staff was tasked with “stakeholder management”.
Lowick lobbied for clothing giant Boohoo, most recently in September 2021, according to the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists. Since Starmer took over as Labour leader in 2020 the party has become increasingly open to receiving funding and in-kind donations from large corporate firms and donors who had left the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
PR firms set up ‘Labour Units’
In a further sign that firms which help corporate clients influence politicians are shifting their focus towards Labour, two major PR firms have set up dedicated ‘Labour Units’ in recent months. Hanbury Strategy set up the unit, which will be led by Starmer’s former deputy chief of staff, with the aim of “helping clients engage with the Opposition and prepare for the prospect of a Labour government”.
In a statement, Hanbury said the Labour Unit “will provide high-level insight into Labour policy and political developments, as the party maintains a consistent polling lead over the Conservatives”. The statement added: “It will also help clients prepare for the possibility of a Labour government after the next general election, including advice on how the Labour manifesto could affect them, and guidance on the manifesto development process.”
Hanbury Strategy associate director Jamie Williams is making the leap to Labour as Shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reed‘s adviser. While earlier in the year, another associate director at the firm, Isabel Bull, moved to become Angela Rayner’s political and policy manager. Hanbury’s current lobbying clients include private investment bank Blackstone Group, while the Public Affairs Register states they provide services to Deliveroo, Citibank and more.
NationalWorld reported in September that grassroots unions were becoming increasingly concerned that Labour is “going soft” on gig economy firms, like Just Eat, Uber and Deliveroo. Another firm listed on the Register of Consultant Lobbyists, Fleishman-Hillard, has also launched a Labour Unit in recent weeks, headed up by a former Labour staffer.
What are the rules on lobbying?
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) is currently carrying out an inquirty into the UK’s lobbying legislation, with a number of witnesses telling MPs that the Lobbying Act is not fit for purpose and does not capture the vast majority of lobbying.
Currently, there is no requirement for the registration of lobbying of members of the opposition, or the Shadow Cabinet, despite the obvious influence these individuals hold, which will increase significantly should they enter government.
MPs have questioned experts on whether the legislation should be extended to cover lobbying of the Shadow Cabinet, with the registrar of consultant lobbyists, the lobbying watchdog, Harry Rich, saying that doing so would “make it a more comprehensive system”. Jon Gerlis, of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations told the committee, “there is an argument to be had,” about extending the scope of the legislation to include all MPs and peers.
He said: “When you think about reshuffles and general election periods, many organisations that our bodies represent are doing a significant amount of work with the Opposition, because there is an election coming up potentially in a couple of years and we might have some new Ministers. If there is no record of that, that does a disservice to all parties in that discussion.”
Duncan Hames, Director of Policy at Transparency International UK, told MPs that lobbying of politicians "happens in all political parties," and that "if we are interested in making our democratic process more transparent, we should look not only at the lobbying of government ministers."
Referring to the current lobbying transparency regime, he said: "When you design a system like that, you will inevitably not shine a light on lobbying of people outside of government. Governments change. People enter government having not been in government and having been very extensively lobbied."
Labour acknowledged NationalWorld’s request for comment on this article, but declined to answer any questions put to them, including whether the staffing arrangements were sought out by the firms or by the party and what the seconded staff will be doing. They also declined to comment on the party’s position on reforming the lobbying act to provide greater transparency over meetings between consultant lobbyists and opposition MPs, in particular members of the Shadow Cabinet.
Speaking to the Telegraph recently, Reynolds played down any potential conflicts of interest arising from the party’s closer ties with lobbying firms. He said: “The idea that there’s a sort of secret access to secret plans that they gain from that is really not the case.” Both Dodds and Reynolds did not respond to NationalWorld’s requests for comment.