The age of politics by WhatsApp has damaged our trust in transparency
“We all know how it works”, said the then prime minister David Cameron in 2010. “The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.”
What Cameron didn’t know when he gave the speech, which explicitly linked “secret corporate lobbying” to the public’s mistrust in politics, is how much a then-new app would, in only a few short years, become one of the main channels of communication within – and into – Westminster’s halls of power.
WhatsApp launched in 2009 and quickly became the go-to messaging app of choice, including in Westminster. The quiet word in one’s ear has now been replaced by a few taps on the phone. It seems almost weekly that leaked WhatsApp messages find their way from lobby journalists’ phones to newspaper front pages.
It all makes for compelling drama as political manoeuvres and expletive-laden messages get exposed, but there is a serious concern about the law’s ability to keep up with the rapid pace of technological advances. This is particularly true when it comes to our lobbying laws, ironically brought in by David Cameron himself.
The 2014 “Lobbying Act” was introduced to build trust and confidence in our political institutions, and in the important role lobbying plays in our democracy, by introducing a requirement to register such activity. It has failed.
The fact is that it is easier than ever for the connected to contact those in power: David Cameron, for instance, simply WhatsApped his former colleagues to tell them Greensill Capital was ‘riding to the rescue’ of the government. And yet, despite the significance of his messages, there was no requirement for Cameron to sign the lobbying register introduced by the Act.
In fact, the register only captures limited lobbying activity: oral, written or electronic communications sent personally to a minister or permanent secretary conducted by third-party, consultant lobbyists. It is wholly blind to ‘invisible lobbying’, namely that of MPs, regional mayors, APPG chairs and devolved bodies, which doesn’t need to be registered. It is an analogue regulation in a digital age: focused more on formal correspondence than casual WhatsApp messages from a lawyer to an MP, for instance.
What’s more, no lobbying activity that is done by an employee of a business needs to be registered. If someone can argue they are only engaged in “incidental lobbying”, they are not required to register. As a result,
Transparency International estimates that only 4 per cent of lobbying is registered. The Act is not fit for purpose.
Take the case of Andrew Bridgen. The MP for North West Leicestershire was recently suspended from the Commons for five days after lobbying ministers for “appropriate tax treatment” on behalf of Mere Plantations whilst failing to declare donations and paid-for-trips made to him by the company. For all the outcry, Bridgen was not required to register this activity.
Times are changing and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) is reviewing the Act. Clearly, though, what is needed is nothing short of an overhaul. Open, honest and transparent lobbying is an important part of our democracy and can effect positive change, but its unethical sibling has been a suppurating sore on the side of British politics for too long.
We need a system that is fit for the modern age, that raises the standard of our politics, that works to rebuild trust, and that works for businesses. One simple way of doing that is to expand the register so it reflects the true extent of lobbying activity, not just of a small number of lobbyists. All communications, be it letter or WhatsApp, must be documented.
WhatsApp, through its encryption, was designed as a secure messaging platform. It should not be the place to influence public policy. A contact book does not make a good lobbyist and, in the age of transparency, it is frankly unacceptable to conduct business in that way.
For too long lobbying has been a dirty word but businesses should be proud of legitimately seeking to influence public policy ethically and transparently. The public is demanding nothing less.