The Dark Art of Lobbying

We lift the lid on the industry cloaked in mystery.


“We have conversations that aren’t always shared or in minutes,” admits Adam Love, head of external communications at Hitachi Rail. That comment may sound vaguely sinister, but it’s swiftly followed by a more prosaic observation. “We’re just helping politicians better understand our market, because they’re not experts. It’s our job to help them and to help them make the right decisions.”

That market is, of course, the railways. A former press officer at Network Rail and the office of the mayor of London, Love is one of those people who move seamlessly between government and the private sector. To talk with him is quickly to be disabused of the idea that there is some shadowy world at the centre of power: policy is more prosaic than that. “We’re talking about investment in services, how we’re helping constituents get to work on time or visit their families,” he explains. “We’re just helping politicians better understand our market, because they’re not experts.”

By offering expertise to a policymaking class typically in great need of it – as many who are still scarred by the calamitous DoT tenure of Chris Grayling will attest – Love is offering Hitachi as a kind of civic help. In talking to him, I feel I’m getting closer to answering one of the overlooked questions of politics: has external influence on policy-making become too great? To put it another way: is the interaction between government and the private sector quite as innocent and prosaic as Love suggests?

Let’s drill down a little into the example of Hitachi example, a company that has enjoyed plenty of success in securing government contracts. For instance, the Department for Transport’s flagship Intercity Express Programme launched a decade ago with Hitachi as the preferred bidder – an example of effective public-private cooperation and the lucrative work of tailor-made marketing teams such as his. It’s a lucrative contract. The £5.7 billion initiative will see the firm build 122 new trains for services across Britain by the end of 2021, with shiny new models already serving the Great Western and London North Eastern Railway lines.

So far so good. But the project has not been free of controversy, with an anonymous industry insider telling The Guardian in 2013 that the project was a “sham”, with vanishingly little public scrutiny and no substantive plans to support UK manufacturing. In response to this, Hitachi cites its Newton Aycliffe plant, which opened in 2015 and now employs some 1,000 workers. In opposition to this, it might also be pointed out that the site does not actually manufacture parts, but rather assembles components built in Japan.

“My team deals with PR and relationships with government,” Love continues. “The government is one of the biggest customers for any transport organisation, and Hitachi Rail is no different.”

At the Financial Times’s Future of Mobility summit in late 2019, keynote speakers included a vice-president of Shell, Volvo’s chief technology officer and the CEO of a Siemens subsidiary. A raft of FTSE 250 public affairs heads and Westminster policymakers made up the numbers, eager to capitalise on a lucrative opportunity to network with fellow industry leaders. As with the FT’s Banking Summit at the Intercontinental Park Lane a week later where John Bercow and RBS CEO Alison Rose were the headliners, tickets to the day-long event cost just shy of £1,500 per person. But, of course, the company executives get in for free.

To understand how such events have come to play such an important part on the calendar of every well-connected public affairs and PR official, you’d have to look back to where it began. At the same time as creative directors were repackaging and reselling products, services and even feelings to American consumers out of shiny Madison Avenue advertising agencies, another quieter revolution was taking place.

Companies big and small began to tailor their brand images to better communicate with the toughest market of all – a frequently inaccessible and notoriously exclusive audience with more money to spend than anyone else: politicians.

By the end of the decade, lobbying had become an art form with the swanky new title of ‘public affairs’ – a rhetorical flourish that would make Don Draper proud. The industry group the Public Relations and Communications Association, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, estimates that almost 100,000 employees populate the UK marketing industry alone – with up to one-third responsible for public affairs. Interestingly, the great majority are women.

Nowadays, at political events in and outside of Westminster, private sector firms of all sizes frequently pay heftily for the prime spots to curry favour with influential policymakers – and simply to remind them that they exist. At the last Labour Party conference, while party staffers and elected officials used fringe events to lambast the big tech firms for selling citizens’ private data and enabling the internet to become a breeding ground for ‘fake news’, it was Facebook, Google and YouTube that had the most expensive and best-located multimedia stalls in the Brighton Centre. That was public affairs at work.

Sometimes things can seem a little close for comfort. In 2017, the Financial Times reported that David Cameron had lobbied Boris Johnson while the future PM was Mayor of London to drop several measures curtailing ride-hailing apps such as Uber. Some thought public affairs were at work: prominent Cameron adviser Steve Hilton was married at the time to Rachel Whetstone the Uber vice-president for communications and public policy. It isn’t difficult to imagine the kinds of conversations behind closed doors which may have taken place – but the public relations industry is such that imagining is all the media can do.

Is this the unofficial lobbying machine at work or is this an unfair caricature? Nothing was proven in the Uber instance, and the story has a perhaps lurid and tabloidal flavour. Many public-private relationships are less well-documented, less sexy – in short, everyone involved is disciplined and careful.

A day after the Uber ban, at a summit this writer attended, lobbying took the form of speed-dating rather than arranged marriages. Scores of industry policy heads from Nissan to Honda, Ford to Arriva, talked out future plans, sharing with one another what they want from government and how they intend to go about getting it. Meanwhile, the policy world was represented by senior representatives from TfL, the Department for Transport and council leaders from Manchester and Bristol, with Bristol mayor Marvin Rees attending as a keynote speaker.

This is where the murk begins. Few officials were willing to speak to journalists. Several public officials admitted in private to Mace that their profession is intentionally mysterious. One government relations head at a major vehicles manufacturer said, “[Ours] is a conservative company. All of the media capital we have is spent promoting our products rather than describing the work we do.” The professional continued, “It’s not dark arts – but it’s not something we’d lay out in public either.” When the lobbyist asked whether or not I’d spoken to anyone else from the industry – it was still early in the day, so I told them I hadn’t – they nodded and smiled: “Good luck.”

He was talking about that very Westminster-ish gathering. But equally, you’ll need a dose of fortune if you’re to understand the real currents of influence today, which are reliably international.

Not many today have heard of Maurice Edelman, the Labour MP who represented Coventry constituencies for some 30 years from 1945 until his death in 1975. But he was one of those who foresaw with impressive clarity the direction of travel, and he used a transport example to illustrate his point as well, telling the Commons in December 1960: “There are people in this country… who are deeply concerned that the control and direction – not simply of Ford of Dagenham, but of the British motor industry – will be determined not from Coventry, not from Dagenham, not from Whitehall or Westminster, but from Detroit or Washington. That is really the problem with which we are concerned tonight.”

Edelman might sound like a Jeremy Corbyn prototype, but he was responding to a proposal by Ford’s head office to buy out the remaining shares of its majority-owned subsidiary Ford of Britain. Those shares were held by some 10,000 stockholders – and though the offer turned out to be a generous one, MPs like Edelman continued to voice concerns over an unaccountable foreign leadership overseeing the motor company’s 40,000-strong UK workforce.

Six years later, amid industrial strife, Ford merged its British, Irish and German operations into one Ford of Europe based in Cork, where Henry Ford’s father was born and where the company opened its first European factory in 1917.

Such an act of sentimentality is nowadays rare in the ever-changing world of auto manufacturing – or in the private sector more generally – but the story of Ford in Europe is indicative of the fluid relationship between the governments of industrialised economies and the market leaders. Does ultimate power reside with MPs or with money?

But nowadays it is hard to imagine a politician in the Edelman mould challenging the lobbying industry in the House of Commons: it is an accepted part of political life. In an age of increasing transparency this arguably goes somewhat against the grain. But in another sense, Edelman’s vision of a remote Detroit controlling the lives of workers in his constituency has been superseded: nowadays Detroit comes directly to Whitehall: the modern public policy head is more likely to seek a relationship direct with a civil servant.

Meanwhile, in 2010, the civil service updated its original 1998 guidance for Whitehall officials on how to interact with lobbyists and public affairs representatives in response to greater and more valuable direct exchanges between the two groups. “Lobbyists are a feature of our democratic system. There is no ban on civil servants having dealings with them where this serves a proper purpose and is conducted in a proper manner,” the update stated, adding: “The need for propriety is crucial. Lobbyists themselves are bound to want to talk up their own influence and contacts. It is the job of all civil servants to make sure that they conduct their dealings with lobbyists in a manner which is proper and not open to misinterpretation.”

Sophistication is the thing – and as so often, things across the Atlantic are more advanced than here. Take as another example American rail giant Amtrak, whose six-strong federal government affairs team aims to “advance any kind of legislation which results in greater investment for Amtrak”, according to Caroline Decker, Amtrak vice-president. Decker attended the transport summit to share her insight on lobbying government. But there’s an added complication. Amtrak is a state-owned enterprise established by an Act of Congress in the early 1970s; its board of directors is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. It all feels pre-Reagan, pre-Thatcher: the Secretary for Transportation is an automatic member of the Amtrak board.

Although federal government investment has increased year-on-year, the company still consistently lobbies for congressional attention. When I ask whether policymakers really understand the specifics of rail policy, Decker cuts in to offer kind words about her overseers. “It’s like any mode of transportation: these committees have specialised staff who work only on this and closely with industry experts. So, it’s a healthy relationship.”

Amtrak is on course to break even at the end of next year for the first time in its history – and hopes to make an overall operating profit the year after. Decker is vice-president for the Northeast Corridor line – which connects Boston and Washington D.C. via New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore – which is doing well. But the rest of Amtrak is still in the red – especially the costly long-distance routes like New York to Miami and Chicago to San Francisco – which will need billions more in capital investment to lessen the effects of what Amtrak calls “freight train interference.”

Decker stops short of outlining what it is Amtrak seeks from ongoing legislation – though she acknowledges that, like the UK, American policymaking is notably distracted by other things. “A big part of what our team in Washington does is educating policymakers about what we’re doing, how we’re spending taxpayers’ funds,” she explains. So once again, public policy heads see themselves as educators as much as influencers.

When it isn’t money, or the opportunity to educate, what public affairs chiefs and strategy heads at major companies want from policymakers is some good old-fashioned clarity about the future – an invaluable resource for businesses on both sides of the Atlantic.

Love reveals what he really wants from Whitehall, and it’s not new infrastructure projects and the opportunity to bid on them. Instead, he yearns for “clarity of pipeline”. He explains: “The nature of the British system is that, even though it’s controlled by Westminster and Whitehall, the market itself is really quite fragmented – between Network Rail, the train operators and other regulatory bodies within the Department for Transport. That does add an element of complexity. Getting big system change requires a lot more cooperation, whereas if it was one big single body that would make life a lot easier.”

Governments don’t just hand out billion dollar contracts to strangers: you have to be in the room. Hitachi is busy. On 25 October 2018, Stephen Hammond MP, the former transport minister, was hosted at Hitachi Rail’s Ashford depot, as part of the Railway Industry Association (RIA) Rail Fellowship Programme. Meanwhile, in July 2019, according to the Register of Members’ Interests, Hitachi Bombardier and Hitachi Rail respectively paid for four MPs to travel to Italy to “discuss possible options for new UK trains”. These were Bill Esterson (Sefton Central), Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South), Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) and Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes).

There is no suggestion of impropriety here – and that is precisely the point. The need for propriety is still, to quote once again the civil service guidance, “crucial”. And if influence and persuasion are employed in a transparent way, that’s fine – especially if everyone’s learning something on the way.

24th January 2020