In defence of Lobbyists – with Dave Roberts

By Benedict Barrett

From the start, Dave Roberts made his political persuasion clear – he is a Labour supporter and always has been. This, he explained, was crucial to the talk that would follow. Lobbying is an inherently political industry and as such the experience of any lobbyist is subjective to the causes that he or she chooses to represent.

Firstly, Roberts talked about his experience of political discourse in the UK – he pointed out that most politics is not, as we would like to believe, about high ideals and visions for society, but in fact success in politics is all down to organisation. This became a theme in Roberts’ talk, due to his involvement with successful campaigns for both political candidates and pressure groups. He was a key member of Ed Balls’ campaign for the Labour Party leadership, and the rigid organisation of his team was cited in major newspapers as the reason for its (relative) success. Roberts went on to say that it is rare that the team behind a campaign, rather than the candidate, is given credit for success in a Process story like this. Perhaps this is a testament to just how organised his team was and why that led to a positive result.

Roberts also talked about his failures in politics, saying that no political career is without some degree of failure. He told the society about how he campaigned for “Remain” in the 2016 EU referendum, stating that this referendum was unlike anything he’d seen before. He said that the campaign was emotional, that “facts didn’t matter”, and that “the future of the country didn’t matter” to most of those who voted. He expressed dismay at the result, but when later asked by a member of the society whether ‘Brexit’ would have an effect on the lobbying industry, he said that while he felt it may not be beneficial to the country, it would be fantastic for lobbyists.  This was because, he opined, a whole new set of rules will have to be drawn up in the absence of EU law, and that this phase would allow pressure groups a great opportunity to influence decisions made on everything from new human rights laws to new banana regulations. This would mean that lobbyists, as middlemen between government and pressure groups, would be in great demand as pressure groups scramble to have a say.

Roberts was clear that he has thoroughly enjoyed his career as a lobbyist, saying that it was a great way to have a political career without having to stand on a party political platform or be tied to any specific candidate. He also gave several reasons, other than the money or proximity to political activity, why a person might go into lobbying. It is about long term effort to work towards changing policy, raising the profile of important issues and even challenging the ways in which people are used to thinking — for example the Conservative Party’s attitude to homosexuality, he claimed, was largely changed for the better by relentless graft from lobbying groups over many years. Roberts provided a robust defence of lobbying as an overwhelmingly positive force for good in politics in defiance of the industry’s otherwise bad reputation.

The natural progression of this explanation of the role of the lobbyist was to move on to an explanation of how lobbyists do their work. Dave said that this was a clever combination of emotional and rational types of persuasion, and that this was true of most forms of political persuasion, such as the way in which a campaign is run. People are emotionally persuaded by things such as “gut feeling”, or values and their personal motives. People are rationally persuaded, Roberts said, by “facts and figures” – it therefore takes a killer combination of emotional and rational persuasion to have any success as a lobbyist.

Roberts returned to his work with pressure groups, and said that while organisation, his idea of a key to political success, played a decisive role, his campaign for the introduction of cervical cancer vaccines in schools was successful because it was easy to understand, was backed up by strong evidence, and because many people had an emotional connection to the damage caused by cervical cancer. This, he said, was a prime example of what he had just said about emotional and rational persuasion working together.

When questioned about the difference in his experience of lobbying between the US and the UK, Roberts said that the main difference was that of money. The existence of PACs (Political Action Committees) and super PACs in the USA made it an environment, he claimed, that was much more dependent on money. He also said that to an extent the political system in America is “very open” , and encourages participation.

Following on from this, he was asked about whether President Trump is right to want to “drain the swamp” and impose limits and regulations on lobbying. To this, Roberts responded that lobbying is an easy occupation to attack, and that many see it as a behind-closed-doors, perhaps corrupt, way of twisting the public will for profit. But this, he said, is a mischaracterisation of the nature of lobbying and that to simply try to “drain the swamp” is to ignore the nuance in the system and to prevent the lobbyists that want to advocate good causes from doing so.

When questioned about pressure groups, Roberts said that whether being an “insider” group or an “outsider” group is better depends on the nature of the group and its aims. If a pressure group wants to change “nitty gritty” aspects of fine policy, then being an insider is much better. If a group has a “big picture” message, then being an outsider is better. Roberts also warned the society not to “confuse access for influence”, and that the idea of lobbying being all about access is a myth. Sometimes, he said, being an “insider” or having a lot of access, can mean that the pressure groups forced into grubby compromises with the government, at the risk of losing their influence.

Roberts was a very lively and personable speaker, and engaged with the issues well, providing a new perspective on course material and answering questions effectively. Our thanks to him for speaking to us.

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