Lobbying at the Tory Conference

Article published: Monday, October 19th 2009

It’s been over a week since the Tory conference left town. For several days, inside the almost militarised city centre, shadow ministers and carefully briefed mouths gushed ‘honesty’. Manchester didn’t seem to pay that much attention. Manufactured ovations to parts of Cameron’s speech and interviewees practically reading off their hands to emphasise how great Dave is on poverty and ‘our boys’ in Afghanistan weren’t fooling anyone. The Tories are still the Tories. They admitted as much – public sector pay freezes, pulling people off incapacity benefit, ‘discipline’ in schools, workhouses for teen mothers…the list goes on. They seemed to like Manchester though, and the city council’s Chief Executive and conference host, Sir Howard Bernstein, is apparently to be made a Tory peer. There were others paying a little more attention too. Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce for one…

coporate-lobbyist-stickman1Mainstream political parties and businesses seem to make happy bedfellows. As a recent poll conducted by Ipsos MORI found, business leaders weren’t too far behind politicians when it came to people’s faith in the truth-telling abilities of certain professions. According to the poll, both are at an all-time low in terms of public confidence.

The chamber of commerce network itself is a powerful lobby operating at the local, regional and national levels. Essentially promoting business interests, the various chambers are highly connected and well funded, and can be expected to have a big say in government policy. Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce (GMCC) is the largest in the UK, with the biggest policy team and around 5,300 member businesses. These members make up the employers of a third of Manchester’s workforce. It meets monthly with the City Council to discuss local policy, and has a number of offshoots such as Manchester Solutions, the Chamber’s ‘delivery arm’ with an annual turnover of £60 million.

The Chamber’s leadership was out in force at the Tory conference, having recently launched their Business Manifesto, following up on last December’s Action for Business, the lobby group’s response to the economic crisis.

According to CEO Angie Robinson GMCC has “a very clear mandate in calling for business to be at the heart of the election debate”. She says that the manifesto “calls for the next Government to ensure immediate and fair access to finance for Greater Manchester firms”. It is her deputy, Chris Fletcher’s opinion, that it is the Chamber’s job “to make sure they don’t forget” business’ key role.

Action for Business, published almost a year ago called for reduced interest rates, corporation tax and regulation. It also pushed for greater labour “flexibility”, and easier access for the private sector “to tender for public sector work…for the purposes of jointly exploiting opportunities”. At the time, (former) President Peter Heginbotham was schmoozing Gordon Brown and Lord Mandelson, but things are slightly different now.

GMCC and the business community aren’t stupid. As Peter Bingle, chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs put it in a note to clients such as BAE Systems and HSBC: “Deal with Brown, Prepare for Cameron”. He went on to promise introductions to “key influencers” of the forthcoming Tory manifesto. Even though the Shadow Cabinet’s proposals are pretty clearly a thinly veiled attack on the poor, it seems like not many people have the stomach to vote for Labour yet again. Next year’s election already seems a foregone conclusion – despite the hapless Chris Grayling.

The Business Manifesto picks up from the Action for Business, focusing on infrastructure, business finance, employment and skills. There are some new bits, specifically about the high speed rail link to London, digital infrastructure and the low carbon economy. Also, with the public debt crisis set to be a major election issue, GMCC argues firmly that the burden of spending cuts and tax rises don’t fall on businesses – they’re going to bring about the recovery after all.

During the conference Chamber representatives were everywhere meeting top Conservatives. A short list of Tory ‘Shadows’ include: Secretary to the Treasury Phillip Hammond, Home Secretary Chris Grayling, Skills Minister David Willets, Business Minister Ken Clarke, Chancellor George Osborne, chairman of the Policy Review Oliver Letwin and the Leader, David Cameron, who was apparently very impressed with Manchester SkillCentre in Trafford Park. Director of Apprenticeships at SkillCentre is hopeful of Mr. Cameron “moving funding for apprenticeships back into the hands of employers” and reiterates the need for “facilities like these as a bridge between learning and employment”. Education for education’s sake then.

That the business lobby is getting cosy with the government-in-waiting is no surprise. People have got used to it with New Labour, now the original ‘party of business’ is coming back, and are expecting more of the same. But there’s something more going on. There doesn’t seem to be any pretence anymore that people are at the centre of British democracy, or that government should be independent of big business.

Prospective Tory candidates don’t even appear to see the conflict of interest between becoming an MP and working for a large PR firm. Firms which represent, among others, Google, Tesco, Microsoft, Bupa, BAE Systems and Pfizer. There are apparently over two dozen working as lobbyists or in PR who have a good chance of winning seats in the General Election (Cameron himself has a background in the PR industry). The Conservative Party today is a slick PR machine, but how easy is it going to be to tell the government from the lobbyists in 2010? Whatever happens, no doubt Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce will be in on the ground floor.

Andy Lockhart

More: National, Opinion


  1. Good article – without sounding too tinfoil hat brigade, there’s a lot of powerful people we never hear about, businesses fight hard on expensive campaigns to get their own way with government. It’s ironic all the people (the tories particularly) bashing the CWU at the moment for doing what corporate lobbyists are constantly doing!

    Comment by lou on October 22, 2009 at 7:08 pm

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