‘Satan’s Little Helpers’ (5) A ‘return to the dark days’

How do we know for sure that these surveys are really a form of lobbying, even though it is carried out by companies run by lobbyists? Really the question here should be: is anyone actually denying it? That this survey-like system is a form of lobbying is revealed by ComRes’ Andrew Hawkins, who in 2009 attacked new legislation that would require MPs to declare all their outside interests — including any incentives they receive from the pollsters — the way the rules for MSPs say they should.

First, Hawkins cleverly argued that the anonymity that the MSPs would usually enjoy as survey respondents would be at risk, if they had to declare the money: something of a tautology there.  But to what extent this cherished anonymity is in any way protected by a company, such as ComRes, acting on behalf of a client or a group of clients, is doubtful for several, mostly commercial reasons.[1] Companies may want to know the opinions of a set of MSPs generally, but it is highly likely that particularly with those companies whose interests are directly affected by the outcomes of specific decision-making groups, they would want to know specific opinions in terms of intentions by specific MSPs.  In any case some MSPs would appear to be admitting that the surveys/interviews take place while, as we shall explore later, some do not.  As it stands just now the Register of Interests (and this might also apply to the House of Commons’ register) is simply not a transparent or consistent record of what is taking place here, neither does it offer explanations as to reasons or motivation.  Protecting a system whereby MSPs receive money from private companies anonymously via an intermediary, because anonymity is desirable in the eyes of the private company and the intermediary, is not a suitable justification.  Would MSPs stand up in parliament and defend it along these lines?  In essence this is intentional secrecy from the public with private vested interests in the know, with only sophistry to defend it.

Survey findings can be simply reversed to trace particular MSPs attitudes: moving from the general to the particular rather than the other way around.  Similarly the process of interviewing specific MSPs (and of note is the re-interviewing process we identified with Baillie) could be argued to have the potential of exploiting the influence on the respondent, that surveys inevitably have, which survey designers try to eliminate, but which can — through awareness of survey design — be built in, and indeed may condition the respondent.  I will present evidence later that this is the case. Furthermore, as a result of the confidential information imparted and its seeming charitable purpose MSPs may become more relaxed about providing information or speculating on the future direction of legislation.  But the electorate simply do not know what type of questions are being asked, on who’s behalf and for what purposes and their knowledge will not be enhanced if Hawkins gets his way.  And bear in mind that lobbyists do not really have to depend on these convoluted routes to approach MSPs: the traffic flows both ways in a complicated system as we shall also examine later.

On other instances Hawkins argues that secrecy produces negative consequences, and is actually engendered by scrutiny of what he terms ‘market research’:[2]

If the rules on outside interests are drawn so tightly that MPs effectively feel unable to take part in market research, it will encourage a return to the dark days of the 1990s when lobbyists like Ian Greer could trade on personal contacts. These new rules will create a wall of secrecy around MPs and thus a premium on inside knowledge, making it far less transparent.[3]

By ‘drawn so tightly’ he is referring to the MSPs admitting the survey contact.  So despite the introduction of the vague term ‘market research’, this is a description of the survey contextualised as a form of surrogate lobbying — what the survey process obtains is ‘inside knowledge’ for the client, with a view to preferential or deferential treatment: the aspect of money that should have been declared changing hands we will come to below.  There is no denial here that the game is to obtain ‘inside knowledge’ or that money does change hands we are just haggling about its rate of exchange.  We may also infer from the above statement that this process was devised as a replacement to obviate the regulation brought to bear after the lobbying ‘sleaze’ which he finds personified in Greer (whose clients included ASDA and who was a former Conservative Party staffer).[4] Hawkin’s warning is that if this system is tight enough to reveal its transactions it will engender a return (i.e. there is a connection in terms of replacement) to the old ways that the survey approach has, shall we say, rebranded.[5]

But who is to say that Lobbyists have really abandoned this trading on personal contacts?  Lionel Zetter’s personal website states: “Lionel has a wide range of contacts within the worlds of politics and public affairs, and a deep understanding of the workings of government.”[6] That involves personal contact with MPs as far as the Conservative Enterprise Forum is concerned. What force is determining that this ‘return to the dark days’ will take place?  Is Hawkins saying that all lobbyists were like Greer in the past and are unlike him now?  The Greer practices which caused the fuss were the payment of MPs, and have we really escaped from those ‘dark days’ with the survey system: its replacement.

ComRes also submitted this threatening prediction (exactly the same wording) on July 1, 2009, to Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the Commission for Standards in Public Life[7] as part of Kelly’s somewhat unedifying enquiry into MPs expenses.  Hawkins stated that the development of the survey process was fed by the ‘substantial appetite’ that organisations have concerning what MPs might do to affect them, and if they do not get it via these surveys they will ‘seek it via other routes.’[8] So much for the dark days being behind us.

In an earlier letter to Kelly, Hawkins set out the modus operandi of the survey lobby (noting that it operated under the Code of Conduct of the Market Research Society):

It is standard practice in the market research community to make available a small fee to MPs in return for completing survey questionnaires.  Such fees are also paid in respect of surveys among other opinion-former audiences such as journalists and think-tanks.  Most such payments are directed to charity or to other third party such as a local party association.  […] Through this channel we have raised a significant amount of money for charity: we calculate more than £300,000 over the past six years.

So here we begin to see the spread of this ‘survey’ system into those who shape political culture, and we glimpse its relation to a process of opinion forming: this type of circulation has been outlined in studies on propaganda such as in the work of Harold Laswell or Walter Lippman and others.[9] But here too we begin to see the scale of this operation, but I know of no response by Sir Christopher Kelly. Sir Alistair Graham, the former Chairman of the committee of Standards in Public Life was a speaker for ComKnow, an offshoot of ComRes run by Hawkins.

The evidence from examination of all the MSPs who admitted to being surveyed, which I will turn to later, showed that roughly a half of them gave their fee to charity and roughly a half gave it to their party.  For some reason they do not seem to admit to just keeping the money for services rendered — and we must ask why?

So with regard to this evidence, we can also say that MPs, journalists and their friends who create illusions in the press might have also been in receipt of about £300,000, if the split is 50/50; and where can we go to find out what journalists and think tank members are being paid and how they dispose of the money? If a company is covertly lobbying supposedly impartial decision-makers, media commentators and for-hire ideas-providers in the think tanks (which interpenetrate with the lobbyists) to concoct seemingly objective analysis and purportedly objective reporting of this process without any real public awareness of the inter-relatedness of this process then the ‘dark days’ of Greer seem somewhat quaint.  This process is not at a remove from it: it is a systemization of it.[10] To counter aspects of this drift it would be a relatively inexpensive process to set up a small independent group to run and maintain the MSPs register of interests.

When looking at the individual amounts declared on each web page it does not convey the overall size of the scheme.  These are rough and round figures, but an estimate of £300,000 is a substantial amount of money going to political parties from lobbyist’s clients, which most likely does not even appear as a political donation because it comes in dribs and drabs. We do not know the total of the money (or why it has not been counted properly) and it is possible that this is a deliberate tactic in response to the Greer days of lump sums in brown envelopes and a useless ceiling on individual amounts that ignores their time frame.  A tally based on the financial year would paint a very different picture and this is just one company: there are several.

On a moral dimension it would seem that MPs do not even make donations to charity themselves, and although the ‘charities’ benefit, although Baillie’s seem part of her self-promotion, this is clearly not the purpose of the scheme — this is to establish a regular conduit between MPs and particular businesses: not a normal function of a survey.  As Hawkins puts it in his letter:

The surveys also provide an important conduit for MPs’ views and therefore make a meaningful contribution to enhanced relationships between parliament and the outside world.

If a survey is a conduit it should not really be called a survey, it should be called a paid conduit.  Hawkins argues that his company never seeks to influence the people who complete the surveys (although this has been found to be impossible by survey designers), adding that this would detract from the survey’s validity: but that would only apply when extrapolating from a particular to a generality and a conduit implies a connection: a means by which something is transmitted to and fro.  Influence can be at its best when it operates without any direct or apparent effort. Hawkins basic request was that MPs be allowed to skip mention of all this type of money that might come their way and that the system of secret conduits and payment be left in place (at no point are the business interests or what they get out of the survey mentioned or taken into account).  He seems to have, more or less, been given his wishes as regards the Scottish Parliament.

One might wonder what the incentive really is for Baillie and the other MSPs who talk to a group of Conservatives in market research clothing, and who’s day job, as it were is putting stories into the media ‘suggesting that the election is in the bag the for the Tories.’[11] ComRes, just like their friends in Populus also annually survey politicians, particularly councillors in England and Wales.[12] They also seem to have held their anniversary party in Holyrood in 2008.[13]

Having presented this basic background sketch we will now turn to evidence and its analysis in relation to a wider group of MSPs who declare their involvement with the survey process in their Register of Interests to see if this presents a distorted picture or an accurate representation of who is being lobbied on whose behalf.[14]

NEXT SECTION


[1] The MSP’s register of interest has quite a variation on whether the clients behind the survey are identified to the MSP, Baillie’s description of this and the funding process is the most confused.

[2] http://www.research-live.com/news/government/new-mp-rules-put-research-at-risk-says-comres-chief/4000373.article

An observation could be made that Hawkins should differentiate between general attitude surveys for general clients and specific surveys tailored to specific client’s needs.

I can find almost no satisfactory explanatory reference to this Annual Survey in the members interests, which possibly means no payment was offered for completion, but I doubt this.  A single reference to (2009) “a Parliamentary Research Panel opinion survey undertaken by ComRes”, which was she states was undertaken “on behalf of their clients” can be found on Elaine Smith’s page, see: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/MSP/MembersPages/elaine_smith/roi.htm

[3] http://www.research-live.com/news/government/new-mp-rules-put-research-at-risk-says-comres-chief/4000373.article

[4] Ed Vulliamy, David Leigh (1997) ‘Sleaze: The Corruption of Parliament’, Fourth Estate Ltd. was Greer was revealed to have paid Members of Parliament commissions for introducing him to potential clients. In what became known as the “Cash for Questions Affair,” the Sunday Times revealed in 1994 Greer had been paying MPs to table parliamentary questions on behalf of his clients.

[5] Compare his statements to his power point: http://www.theparliament.com/fileadmin/theParliament/Andrew_Hawkins_AM.pdf

[6] See: http://www.lzconsulting.co.uk/

[7] See: http://www.comknow.co.uk/speakers.aspx ComKnow maintains an Advisory Panel to advise and help design the courses. The Advisory Panel comprises: Sarah Atkinson, Head of Corporate Affairs, Charity Commission,; Jonathan Bracken,  Bircham Dyson Bell; Rod Cartwright, Managing Director of Public Affairs, Ketchum / Chair, PRCA Public Affairs Committee; Tony Ginty, Head of EU and UK Public Affairs, Marks & Spencer plc; Bernard Hughes, Head of Public Affairs, Adsa plc; Francis Ingham, Dircetor General, PRCA; Helen Kennett, Head of Government Relations, Thales UK; Patrick Law, Director of Corporate Affairs, Barratt Development plc; Jo Lewis, Head of Public Policy and Regulation, Lloyds TSB; Chris Lowe, Director of Government Relations, Precise Public Affairs; Rona Macdonald, Government Relations Manager, Oil and Gas UK; Gill Morris, Chair, APPC and Managing Director, Connect Public Affairs; Warwick Smith, Partner, College Public Policy; Cameron Walker, Corporate Communications Director, Scottish Widows and Simon Walker, Chief Executive, BVCA.

[8] http://www.public-standards.gov.uk/Library/MP_Expenses_E686_ComRes.pdf

[9] Harold Lasswell identified a cycle, whereby the public are limited in the information that is presented to them, and also apprehensive to accept it. However, it is still that information that is affecting their decisions within the democratic system, and still that information that is being presented to them by the government, mainstream media and propagandists. Walter Lippmann’s ideas on stereotypes noted the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment  (propaganda). To that pseudo-environment our behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where action eventuates.

[10] We would also have to factor in the efforts of organisations such as Editorial Intelligence who also work a system of paying journalists etc. via PR companies.

[11] http://www.silobreaker.com/andrew-hawkins-11_1250334 See also: http://www.brands2life.com/news_release.aspx?id=39 and http://www.e-pages.dk/dods/145/fullpdf/full4b2916212a955.pdf

[12] http://www.i-l-m.com/lgm/7349.aspx

[13] http://publishing.yudu.com/Library/Asxsj/Holyroodmagazineissu/resources/68.htm

[14] Ipsos MORI also have political connections via its directors.  Ipsos’ Ben Page is stated by the Cabinet Office to have “worked closely with both Conservative and Labour ministers and senior policy makers across government, leading on work for Downing Street, the Cabinet Office, the Home Office and the Department of Health, as well as a wide range of local authorities and NHS Trusts.” See: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/events/tower/ben_page.aspx

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