Lobbying the Tribe
You know how at least one political party works inside out.
But you need money to live on: whatever the general public may think, no-one goes into politics in the UK for the cash.
The obvious answer, often suggested to people trying to make their way in politics, is public affairs. The workings of Westminster and the machinations of political parties – such a mystery to the general public and to many eminent business people – are already known to you.
Why not use that expertise and at the same time burnish your contacts?
His most important tip is to be upfront about who you are and what your values and views are. Politics, he explains, is tribal and the fact you understand your tribe is invaluable to the client. As long as you are open about them, your political affiliations become an asset rather than a problem.
But Alex works at an agency where Jon McLeod, the Chairman of UK Corporate, Financial and Public Affairs, is a Labour supporter, and Tamora Langley, a Senior Director, was a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in 2010. They deal with their political parties and Alex concentrates on the Tories. The job is, he says, almost never about the client’s political views but what they want to achieve in business.
And, Alex warns, you must always keep that in the front of your mind. “A classic example is a client who is wedded to me as a consultant and wants me to take them to the Labour conference. I say you would be much better off going with Jon McLeod.”
As a tribal Tory, Alex says, he would not know the right people in the Labour party to introduce the client to, nor would he have the credibility with the Labour party to be of any use.
Lobbying the Left
For Jack (not his real name), a senior public affairs specialist in a big housing charity, it is not easy being a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party.
He says he has a few rules. No external work, just brokering contacts behind the scenes and delegating all the frontline policy and parliamentary work to his able team.
“Get yourself a cat and stay in the dark,” is his main advice.
His knowledge about politics and how it works is invaluable to the organisation.
“It’s simple things like knowing that you can’t start trying to influence the manifestos in November for an election the following May because they will all have been all but written by then and parties won’t particularly welcome last minute suggestions. Or that you can’t hold a breakfast meeting at a Labour conference on a Monday because everyone will be recovering from the New Statesman party the night before, and it’s only the Christians who get up early on Monday.”
Even with his own party, though, there can be difficulties. He says he has to be very careful not to muddle his charity’s line with that of the Labour party because often they disagree, and so will only appear in public as a parliamentary candidate, not as his charity’s spokesman. As a parliamentary candidate, even in a safe seat, public loyalty to the party line is highly valued.
Many charities and businesses are nervous about having candidates in sensitive political positions like public affairs, and with some justification.
Anand Shukla, Chief Executive of the Family and Childcare Trust, and a Labour parliamentary candidate in 2005, has just been reported to the Charity Commission by the Conservative MP Rob Wilson, who has complained that the charity’s Twitter account used the same hashtags as Labour childcare campaigns and so was politically compromised.
The news has recently broken that Sally Morgan, a Labour peer and chair of Ofsted, is not going to be appointed for a second term. This has prompted a storm of accusations that the Tories want their own people in such prominent public positions.
There is no doubt that it is much easier to work in public affairs – be it in the business or the voluntary sector – when you are seen to be sympathetic to the party or parties in government and you know them inside out. It may even help you to get a job in government later on.
Nevertheless, whatever political party you belong to, public affairs is about brokering deals and fixing or explaining things behind the scenes, while frontline politics is about being out, proud and tribal. You can marry the two for a while, but in the end, they will always clash and you will have to make a choice about which one is more important.
Sally Gimson is a Labour councillor in Camden and formerly Head of Public Policy for Victim Support and Director of Communications at the Family and Parenting Institute.