Lobbyists revisit their modus operandi to deal with the rise of Corbyn
“There are 17 people that count,” a well-known Labour lobbyist once famously said. “To say that I am intimate with every one of them is the understatement of the century.”
The lobbyist in question was Derek Draper, pal of Peter Mandelson and director at lobbying firm GPC Market Access, speaking in the salad days of Tony Blair’s premiership. Fast forward 17 years and polls suggest Jeremy Corbyn is set to be elected Labour leader with a mandate of Blair-esque proportions. Yet it takes a gargantuan leap to imagine any lobbyist boasting of their proximity to the people that count around the Islington North MP. And not just because the UK lobbying industry has largely cleaned up its act since Draper’s days.
“I know of nobody in the industry - or indeed the real world - who is a Corbynite,” one experienced Labour lobbyist tells me. “All of my Labour-supporting colleagues would be horrified by the accusation!”
Jon McLeod, corporate and public affairs chairman at Weber Shandwick, puts it more diplomatically: “Since the mid-1990s, Labour lobbyists have tended to be drawn from the pragmatic, Blairite ranks of the party. Lobbying before that really didn't have a history of engagement with Labour, and Labour spent the 1980s ignoring business, or equating it with Torydom.”
While Blairites may be a dying breed in the parliamentary Labour party, the species still thrives in lobbying consultancies across the land. Some of the UK’s top Labour lobbyists (such as Portland boss Tim Allan and Bell Pottinger director Darren Murphy) worked directly with the man himself. Others were senior advisers to Blair’s various acolytes through the years. Many more existed lower down the food chain, perhaps working for a business-friendly Labour backbencher before they fattened their pay cheque with a move into lobbying.
Conversely, consultancies with strong links to Team Corbyn can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And you might still have five fingers spare.
But it is not just the lack of left wing consultants that could prove problematic for those advising businesses on their political strategy. The fact that Corbyn does not appear to be a natural ally of big business is also not lost on Britain’s hardworking lobbyists.
Nick Laitner, managing director at MHP Communications, says: “Looking at the public statements of Corbyn and his most ardent supporters, big business and commercial lobbyists are viewed as on a par with Blairites and Zionists as one step up from the antichrist - if we are lucky.”
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, some public affairs bosses may be tempted to give up on lobbying Labour under Corbyn, safe in the belief that he will never make it to Downing Street. One consultancy boss concludes that "a Corbyn-led Labour can be expected to be anti-business and anti-lobbying, so the prospects for meaningful engagement are bleak". But it’s a risky strategy, especially if the polls detect early support for the left winger. Other lobbyists believe that engagement is still possible – it will just have to be more targeted than in the past, perhaps aimed at the more pragmatic members of Corbyn’s inner circle.
One key target will be Simon Fletcher. The man overseeing Corbyn’s leadership bid is no stranger to much of the public affairs industry, having spent eight years as Ken Livingstone's chief of staff during his time as mayor of London. More recently, Fletcher worked for Ed Miliband as his trade union liaison officer, responsible for maintaining good relations between the Labour leader and union chiefs.
The senior Tory lobbyist Peter Bingle prides himself on having acquaintances across the political divide. He says: “I got to know Simon very well and worked closely with him when I was retained by Ken to help make the case for the Mayor having greater powers. I am a fan. Simon is also one of the best organisers in modern politics. This explains in part why Corbyn's campaign has been so professional and effective. The public affairs industry needs to get to know Simon ASAP. They will find him bright and very good company.”
Another experienced lobbyist who declines to be named is less complimentary about Fletcher but speaks highly of a second Corbyn ally. Jon Lansman is a left-wing fixer who helped Tony Benn take on Dennis Healey back in the 1981 deputy leadership election. “Lansman is a key figure. He’s very intelligent, he knows where their weaknesses are. I hope he takes on a big role,” says the lobbyist.
Many of the parliamentarians backing Corbyn are not seen as especially keen to work with business, but one possible exception could be Jon Trickett. The MP for Hemsworth and deputy chair of the Labour party was leader of Leeds Council in the early 1990s. After being elected to the Commons in 1996, he went on to serve as a parliamentary private secretary to Peter Mandelson and - a decade later - to Gordon Brown in Number 10. Stuart Bruce, the Labour lobbyist and PR man who has previously advised Andy Burnham and Alan Johnson, recalls: "Jon was very business friendly when leader of Leeds. He created one of the very first partnership bodies between councils and business. People forget Jon was quite a New Labour style leader, before Blair."
Outside of Corbyn’s inner circle, alternative power bases are also thought to be worth exploring. The party’s former campaigns chief Tom Watson appears on track to win the deputy leadership of the party – and to become a vital conduit between the new leader and the parliamentary Labour party. Watson may be an accomplished streetfighter but throughout his campaign he has held back from putting the boot into Corbyn, and even went out a limb to argue that the Islington North MP was “not a Trotskyist”. His comradely behaviour means that Watson can reasonably expect to have a productive relationship with his new boss as he seeks to unite the shadow cabinet and backbenchers.
“If Tom Watson is elected deputy leader there is little doubt that he will wield huge power and influence,” says Bingle, who was previously chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs. "Watson is very well known to certain elements of the public affairs industry. He is approachable, bright and very good company. On issues such as hacking, the Murdoch empire and child sex abuse he has also shown himself to be independent minded and brave.”
Other lobbyists note that there will be many Labour MPs with a rather different outlook to the leader - and his deputy. With the party looking more divided and disloyal than ever, some consultants will look to pick off moderate MPs and Blairite factions within the party in a bid to get support for an issue or policy. Laitner says: “The realist wing of the party (led by Chuka, Liz and Tristram, among others) will become a safe space for those for whom business is not a dirty word. This moderate grouping – surely the future leadership of any Labour Party that survives the next few years intact – will be vital in providing the necessary balance on the Labour benches.”
Corbyn is clearly in no hurry to break bread with Britain's entrepreneurial elite, but he has shown some leg to business as his leadership campaign has progressed. In his ‘Better Business’ document, the left winger unveiled plans to freeze rates for small businesses and to invest in skilled workers. In a recent FT interview, Corbyn even said his “doors are always open” to big businesses – but only after he was less than enthusiastic about helping those firms in the FTSE 100. “I think they are managing just fine at the moment,” he told the paper.
One well-connected Labour lobbyist suggests that his public affairs colleagues should not worry themselves too much at this stage.
“It will be a lot more sensible than people think it’s going to be. The idea that the Labour party under Jeremy becomes a beast that no-one can deal with is completely ridiculous. He’ll open up a context in which ideas are allowed in. There will be a policy review process that involves the grassroots a lot more. There may well be an opportunity to put some ideas in, there may well be an opportunity to talk to some of the people who are thinking through this stuff.”
The senior lobbyist also points out that a few experienced operators – possibly from Ed Miliband’s team - will also have to be brought into Corbyn’s inner circle to ensure the smooth-running of the party machine.
“None of the hard left have any experience at the top of the party. They will have to bring in heavier hitters – and they know that. People with the wherewithal, the experience of running organisations like the Labour party. They don’t really know what they’re doing. So they will have to tempt them in. That will mean they have to tone down some the madder things.”
However Team Corbyn shapes up, the Islington North MP’s unlikely rise to the top of the Labour party could have a profound long-term impact on the UK’s lobbying industry.
In the short-term it means those lobbyists who do want to engage with the Labour party will need to reconsider their modus operandi with some urgency.
“If people want to be part of the discussion, they need to at least be very observant now,” advises one source close to Team Corbyn. “Some of the people involved in this burst of energy will be future cabinet ministers.”
Bingle puts it slightly differently. The seasoned Tory lobbyist states: “What is amusing about all of this is that even public affairs consultancies with a strong Labour history or those who made expensive Labour hires before the last election will find it hard if not impossible to have any immediate traction with Jezza and his team.
“The question for industry bosses is whether he will stay around long enough as leader to make it worthwhile hiring commercially minded Trotskyites.
“I wonder how many of them have been in touch with headhunters.”
This article first appeared at Public Affairs News.