Drawing on a recent article, Ben Worthy and Michele Crepaz explore what effective UK lobbying reform would look like in light of Keir Starmer’s promise to ‘clean up politics’.
Labour leader Keir Starmer has promised to ‘clean up politics’, and has become the latest in a long line of UK politicians vowing to reform lobbying.
Starmer will not be the first to try. After his first election victory in 1997, Tony Blair famously warned his party that it must appear ‘whiter than white and purer than pure’. A few months before the 2010 general election, David Cameron promised to deal with the ‘far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money’. The 2014 Lobbying Act which followed was, to put it succinctly, a big disappointment, covering only a few lobbyists and backed up by a weak regulator. Since then, repeated attempts at reform have been defeated by politicians who have either lost enthusiasm, found themselves blocked, or were exposed as hypocrites.
This latest promise from Labour is not just about improving lobbying standards, but also – through this and other measures – creating a new sort of politics to tackle the declining trust in British politicians and the political system, which is now well below the OECD average. In what looks like to be a nasty general election campaign, the question of politicians’ trustworthiness is likely to be in the spotlight.
Despite some progress, the UK’s system for regulating lobbying is still inadequate. At present, the lobbying regime is weak, fragmented and open to manipulation. The main instrument, David Cameron’s register of lobbyists, is estimated to cover only 1% of the lobbying industry. For those interested in monitoring lobbying in the UK, information needs to be pieced together from various websites. The rules are enforced by a relatively toothless regulator with limited powers of investigation and prevention of influence peddling and conflicts of interest.
Since John Major’s premiership, the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others have pushed for stronger lobbying rules. Recently some progress has been made. The code of conduct for MPs was updated in 2023, with an outright ban on paid parliamentary advice and a requirement that MPs have a written contract for outside work that specifies that they can’t lobby for their employer.
However, there are still gaps in the system, with, for example, ministers subject to less stringent conflict of interest reporting rules than MPs. And no steps have been made to consider regulating lobbying within the wider framework of conflict-of-interest prevention.
Labour has committed to a new ethics and integrity commission aimed at further strengthening the system. The new commission would bring together some of the bodies that already oversee standards in public life, such as the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, while ‘streamlining’ the current system and making it stronger.
Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner has on several occasions set out a broad vision for improving standards in public life – but on the whole, details are still lacking.
To be effective, any new regulation of lobbying must do three things. First, it needs to cover the entire spectrum of lobbying, in all its ever-changing forms. As mentioned, Cameron’s much touted changes ended up covering about 1% of all the lobbyists, and failed to pick on important lobbying actors – most notably, in-house lobbyists of representative associations, and corporations with government affairs departments. Any new regulation must include a broader definition of lobbying, a level playing field for registrants, be wider in scope and capture the many new forms this form of political communication takes (or will soon take).
Second, lobbying regulations need to drive more transparency and openness. At present it’s hard to know if, where and how lobbying is happening. Information and data are half-hidden, squirrelled away or tough to piece together. An effective lobbying register needs to centralise information and allow users to verify it through other sources, such as through FOI requests or legislative footprint. Both the Conservatives and Labour have signed up, as a first step, to a centralised database. But again the details of how this will be designed and function remain unclear.
Third, there needs to be more serious consequences for breaches. The fact that lobbying scandals keep occurring suggests the current sanctions lack bite. Labour needs to flesh out what it means by stronger sanctions. With this comes the need to allocate appropriate resources – stronger investigation and enforcement powers will not be effective if there is a lack of staff and resources for the job.
Taken together, these changes could kick start a series of positive feedback effects. However, experience shows that, with lobbying reform, the devil is in the detail, and the problems are in the politics.
In terms of detail, Labour should draw on international best practice when drawing up the specifics. The OECD, the Open Government Partnership, and the Group of States Against Corruption initiative within the Council of Europe draft the most robust recommendations internationally. At the European level, Ireland, France and – more recently – Germany lead the way.
Then there’s the politics of lobbying reform. The recurrent problem is that those who benefit from the status quo must change it. Many MPs cling to the idea of ‘self-regulation’ and fear unintended consequences from reform. First, because lobbyists represent a vital source of technical but also political information, and it is worried that any rule that regulates their work could disrupt the flow of information.
Secondly, lobbying represents a lucrative post-politics career that some may be keen to avail themselves of, making stronger rules on revolving doors and second jobs potentially unwelcome.
If Labour comes to power, what Starmer might be able get through Parliament, and how quickly he can do it therefore remains to be seen. There may only be a brief time window before the experience of government leads to second thoughts and backtracking.
In promising to ‘clean up politics’, Starmer then faces a twin dilemma. If he attempts to water down Labour’s plans, he’ll face charges of hypocrisy or being ‘just like all the others’.
However, ironically, if he does succeed, he faces a kind of paradox of virtue. International experience shows that stronger rules and sanctions can – at the start – lead to more exposure of corruption or undue influence. So, any government ‘cleaning up politics’ can appear, at least in the short-term, more corrupt. Starmer hopes that lobbying reform would mean ‘the character of politics will change’, making it ‘less colourful [with] fewer clicks on social media’. But it is the long-term benefits that should guide Labour’s reform intentions.
By Dr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck, University of London, and Dr Michele Crepaz, Vice Chancellor Illuminate Fellow, School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast.