David Cameron probably rues the day he declared that lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen".
Uttered in 2010 when he was still leader of the opposition, Cameron's words have proven to be prescient. Last year the Conservative Party hired Lynton Crosby as an election strategist. The appointment was hugely problematic as Crosby's "public relations" firms was handed a lucrative contract to help the tobacco giant Philip Morris not long afterwards.
Cameron's government has subsequently scrapped plans to require that cigarettes be sold in plain packets. Regardless of whether Crosby personally urged that the proposal be buried, there is a heady stench of cronyism about the whole affair.
The whiff from the "transparency" records kept by the Conservative members of the European Parliament is only a slightly bit less potent. For sure, the Tories' decision to publish periodical lists of which lobbyists they meet is in itself a positive move. The behaviour that the lists reveal is, on the other hand, quite sordid.
The appointments diary for Welsh MEP Kay Swinburne offers a case in point. Back in 2000, she won a £1 million pay-out after suing her former employers Deutsche Bank over sexual harassment. The preceding court case drew attention to how machismo and capitalism are joined at the hip.
Her experience of sexism in the City of London notwithstanding, Swinburne has been an unflagging defender of its hedge funds and derivatives traders. She has stridently opposed attempts to introduce a small tax on financial transactions, citing fears (no doubt exaggerated) that it would harm the City.
The latest available records indicate that during the first half of this year, Swinburne had a total of 57 meetings with "lobbyists". Some 53 of those discussions were either directly with banks -- including Barclays, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and HSBC -- or with firms and organizations involved in or funded by the financial services industry. One of her few declared contacts with the everyday people of Wales involved a meeting with a charity providing guide dogs for blind people.
Open door policy?
When I asked Swinburne why she spent so much time listening to just one side in the debate on financial regulation, she claimed that the six month period in question had been "unusual" as she had been partly absent for medical reasons.
"I do not accept your accusation that I only listen to financial services companies as it is apparent from prior contact reports over an extended period of time that I have an open-door policy for all these interested in contributing to the legislative process," she added.
While I wish Swinburne every good health, I don't buy her explanation that there was something atypical about the narrow interests of her contacts. In the last six months of 2010, for example, she held over 90 meetings with lobbyists. All of them were from the private sector.
Geoffrey Van Orden, an MEP for the East of England, has put an intriguing disclaimer at the end of his latest available list of appointments. "These meetings are often not 'lobbying' and are frequently at my initiative to explore and understand aspects of policy and encourage British interests," it says.
With a lengthy career as a soldier behind him, Van Orden is especially close to the arms industry. Among the several discussions with weapons producers which he has admitted having between January and June was a dinner with Bill Giles, the Brussels point-man for BAE Systems.
I asked Van Orden if he had ever invited the Campaign Against the Arms Trade or a group similarly critical of the war industry to a meal. "I have supported a global arms trade treaty but do not support CAAT's wider agenda and I am not aware that they have ever asked for a meeting," he replied. "Those concerned about irresponsible arms sales and arming terrorists and authoritarian regimes should focus their attention on countries like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran instead of harassing the democracies."
Van Orden noted that BAE is "a major British manufacturer and one of our biggest exporters" but omitted a few other salient facts. BAE's top client, Saudi Arabia, is such a beacon for democracy that it has finally decided to grant women the vote. Alas, this giant leap towards gender equality won't actually be taken until 2015.
And, according to its 2012 annual report, BAE employs more people in the US than in Van Orden's beloved Britain.
War against workers
In his aforementioned "next big scandal" speech, Cameron decried the "far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money".
The cosiness has continued since he became prime minister. Last week, the Confederation of British Industry - which brags of being the country's top lobbying organisation - called on EU governments to "identify where the burden of regulation can be reduced" for corporations.
Addressing the House of Commons yesterday, Cameron noted that he helped facilitate a discussion between a "business taskforce" and leaders of several EU countries - including Germany, Poland and Italy - in Brussels a few days earlier. Cameron rejoiced at how "deregulation is now part of the EU agenda in a way that it simply hasn't been before".
The "taskforce" Cameron has been championing features key figures from the alcohol company Diageo and the retailer Marks and Spencer. The manifesto it has produced is tantamount to a declaration of war against workers.
A proposal to guarantee female employees 20 weeks of maternity leave on full pay would have to be binned in the name of "competitiveness". Bosses would be given more flexibility to pressurise employees into working longer hours. And a raft of anti-pollution rules would be weakened or abandoned.
Cameron and his acolytes present these demands as essential for economic rejuvenation. In reality, they represent a throwback to an era when factory owners had not yet made some concessions to organised labour. We can read about that era in the novels of Charles Dickens. It doesn't have to be recreated in the twenty-first century.
•First published by EUobserver, 29 October 2013.
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