Getting cosy with Corbyn: how lobbyists are ‘doing Labour again’
The public affairs industry has been revolutionised by renewed corporate interest in Labour.
If the 2017 general election was a political earthquake, then few professions in the UK have felt the reverberations more than lobbyists.
When Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015, he was immediately written off and ridiculed by Conservative-supporting public affairs professionals, while the industry’s hefty contingent of diehard Blairites were often even more scathing.
But with Labour now threatening to take the road to Number 10, many lobbyists have quietly been performing screeching strategic u-turns. No longer can the opposition be ignored or lampooned by public affairs professionals. After two years of only cosying up to Tories, lobbyists need to spread the love again.
"There’s been a total revolution in the public affairs industry with regards to Jeremy Corbyn," says Kevin Craig, founder of lobbying firm PLMR. "Corbyn in Number 10 is now a realistic possibility. So clients are very very interested in the Labour party now."
Chris Rumfitt, managing director of Field Consulting, tells a similar tale. "Before the election the view was that it was pointless because they wouldn’t listen and it was pointless because they couldn’t win," he says. "Now we are back in normal competitive politics and a Labour government is absolutely a credible possibility that everyone is taking seriously.
"Since the election, we’ve had commissions from existing clients and new business from people who are wanting to look at what a Labour government based on an evolution of the 2017 manifesto would mean for them and their sector."
Perhaps the clearest sign of the revived corporate interest in Labour is the enthusiasm being shown for this year’s annual conference.
Having stayed away from Liverpool last year, companies have been keen to snap up stands for the imminent gathering in Brighton. Exhibition space has sold out and corporate chiefs are expected to flock to the business forum at party conference, where they can mix with “prominent business leaders and senior shadow cabinet members”.
At FTSE firms across the land, bosses want to be sure that they are ready for Corbyn and the UK’s public affairs professionals have been given their orders. As one in-house public affairs chief puts it: "It’s time for us to start doing Labour again."
But where are the Corbynite lobbyists who can make it happen? Despite the Labour party upping its game in recent months, Labour left-wingers remain a rare breed in the higher echelons of the UK lobbying industry. But they are not entirely extinct.
One public affairs boss with clear ties to the leader’s inner circle is Steve Howell, founder of Welsh PR and lobbying firm Freshwater, who recently resigned as Labour’s deputy director of communications. But Howell shows no signs of wanting to capitalise on his ‘leading Corbynite lobbyist’ status just yet. Rather than return to lobbying and agency PR, he is continuing to work part-time for the leader’s office.
"I don’t have any plans to go back to client work," he told Public Affairs News last month. "It’s something we’ll keep under review but there are no plans to change that arrangement at this stage."
PLMR boss Craig is one active lobbyist who has bucked the industry trend by getting behind Corbyn. While most Labour-supporting lobbyists preferred to support individual candidates at the local level, Craig donated £16,400 to Corbyn’s 2017 general election campaign coffers. He says he first backed Corbyn to be Labour leader a year earlier.
"I voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the Owen Smith leadership challenge. And I did that because I thought that Jeremy Corbyn deserved a chance to take Labour into the election," says Craig, who is also a Labour councillor.
"I might be slightly unusual as a CEO or MD in our industry in that my mum and dad left school at 13, I grew up in a Lambeth council estate, I have recent memories of being poor and living in local authority housing. So I’m not scared by Corbyn’s agenda."
Another Labour lobbyist, Kevin McKeever, was openly critical of Corbyn when Labour was trailing in the polls and looking likely to be thrashed in the general election. But since then, McKeever has stood as Labour’s candidate for Northampton South, left his job as a director at Portland and set up his own shop, Lowick. He now sees himself as one of the few lobbyists who really knows what is happening in the new-look Labour party.
"I have a live and current understanding and experience of the changes in the party, both from the two leadership elections and the general election where I was out on the doorstep with all of these new members," says McKeever, who missed out on the Commons by just 1159 votes.
"That puts myself, and others from the new generation, in a position to provide insights in a way that will have escaped some of those whose contact books need dusting off. I fully understand how the party has changed in a way that some of the grandee generation do not - perhaps because they haven’t really been in touch with the Labour roots since Tony Blair stood down."
Two years since Corbyn became Labour leader, the top lobbying consultancies remain dominated by Tories and characters closely associated with the New Labour years.
Portland is run by Tony Blair’s former deputy press chief Tim Allan, who gave up on Labour soon after Corbyn became leader, according to well-placed sources. A host of other Number 10 operatives from the Blair/Brown years are also on the books, most notably New Labour spin supremo Alastair Campbell. Rival agency Hanover Communications is headed up by Charles Lewington, the smooth-talking former Conservative party press chief under John Major. Another increasingly major player, Teneo Blue Rubicon, has David Cameron’s former communications chief Craig Oliver at the helm as managing director.
This year, a host of Tory operators have found their way to public affairs firms. Portland has led the way by capturing two of Theresa May’s top Number 10 advisers, Will Tanner and Nick Hargrave. It has also hired Laura Trott, who was head of was head of strategic communications at Number 10 under Cameron and awarded an MBE in his resignation honours. Other recent entrants to the public affairs industry include former Tory special advisers Lizzie Loudon at Hanbury Strategy, Kate Shouesmith at Weber Shandwick and Meg Chandler Powell at Burson Marsteller.
Most audaciously, financial lobbying firm Tulchan Communications has signed up Lord Feldman, the former Conservative party chairman who has been a close friend of Cameron since they were tennis partners at Oxford University. The voluntary code of conduct for lobbyists drawn up by the Association of Professional Political Consultants stipulates that firms must not employ any MP, MEP or sitting Peer. But Tulchan chooses not to be a member of the APPC.
Will any Corbynites be tempted into public affairs in the coming months? One optimistic agency boss is not quite ruling it out. He says: "It’s a smaller pool than would usually be the case, because there is an antipathy towards elements of the private sector within that politics. So those people are more likely to be drawn from the third sector or the trade union movement, but they are there."
But a Labour insider suggests that public affairs bosses shouldn’t expect any big money transfers from Team Corbyn to the lobbying world. "For those who believe in the Corbyn mission, this is the time to be on the bus - not to get off it and cash in," says the source.
With most senior lobbyists having learned the ropes while Corbyn was on the backbenches, Craig and McKeever both report a high degree of hostility and nervousness at the established agencies when it comes to dealing with Labour these days.
"There is an issue that many agencies have no understanding of Jeremy Corbyn, Momentum, trade unions," says Craig. "They don’t understand what’s going on at the grassroots of British politics. So they are advising clients on the Labour party and the Labour movement and their knowledge of it is based on what’s in the media or easily Googleable."
McKeever says that too many Labour-supporting lobbyists are still stuck in the past and need to move on from a New Labour mindset. "I think there’s a sense that many of the long-standing names in the industry, the stars of public affairs, have personal politics that are firmly rooted in the 97 generation," says the former Portland director. "Not only do they not have an understanding of Labour under Corbyn, but they have an antipathy towards the front bench. So they are probably less useful as advisers than people who are confirmed Conservatives."
He adds: "We’ve still got some people pushing out materials and advice from the 1997 general election when people like me were still at school. I think the industry has some really impressive elements to it and others who are perhaps trading on former glories."
If there is a clear roadmap for getting a message to Corbyn’s top team, the signs are that many lobbyists are yet to discover it.
In the last parliament, with the Labour party looking more divided and disloyal than ever, some consultants adopted a strategy of picking off moderate MPs and Blairite factions within the PLP in a bid to get support for an issue or policy. The hope was that the anti-Corbynites would eventually be the future leadership of the post-Corbyn Labour Party.
Now, with the moderate wing of the party looking weaker than ever, that strategy has been blown out of the water. Or has it?
"Some of the big agencies aren’t necessarily giving the best advice," says one senior industry figure. "Or they are giving the advice that they were giving before, which is go to the moderates. So if you want to engage on business and Brexit go to Chuka [Umunna].
"That’s all well and good if you want to shape the wider debate. But to quote John McDonnell, he’s not one of us. That should be part of a suite of engagement. But if you want to influence Labour policy on Brexit, the last person you should rely on is Chuka."
Better-connected Labour lobbyists hope to work their magic with certain front benchers. Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, shadow economic secretary to the Treasury Jonathan Reynolds and shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams are all seen as “sensible” politicians who are willing to listen to what businesses and campaigners have to say.
"Organisations need to activate a red strand to their lobbying," says John Lehal, the CEO of Four Public Affairs who worked on the Andy Burnham and Owen Smith leadership campaigns.
"Pressure groups, charities and businesses need to help Labour’s front bench by arming them with the facts and campaign material to either embarrass the government, to secure concessions, or to inflict defeat. The same applies to Labour in the Lords where Angela Smith and her team are proving formidable."
The most ambitious lobbyists will head straight for the leader’s office, but Lehal is sceptical about going all the way to the top. He says: "It feels like Conservatives will dig in and we won’t have another election until 2022. That’s a long time for the Corbyn-McDonnell project to sustain itself, especially as the leadership finds itself not in the same place as the membership – access to the Single Market being a case in point. The team taking the party into the next election may look very different."
Another senior industry figure is also reticent about taking his messages to Labour’s top table, albeit for a different reason. The boss of one of the UK’s biggest public affairs firms confesses: "You don't know whether they're listening but you have to go through the motions."
While no corporate lobbyist expects to be greeted with open arms by the Labour leader’s inner circle, there are signs that Corbyn’s top team is open to engaging with the business world. Labour in the City, a networking club for people who work in the UK financial services industry and are supportive of the party, now boasts 600 members. It has also held a number of events with senior allies of Corbyn.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell and shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey both attended a private event held by the club in the run-up to the general election, and McDonnell also recently attended a private round table event at the London Stock Exchange.
"One thing about McDonnell and his tribe is that they’re intellectually curious," says Allen Simpson, public policy director at Barclays and chair of Labour In The City, who stood as Labour’s candidate for Maidstone and the Weald in the general election. "They have genuinely engaged with us. I know that from talking to Keir Starmer and John McDonnell and Johnny Reynolds they are very regularly out talking to business leaders across the economy."
Some question marks remain over the attitude of the leader, but the MP for Islington North is no longer seen universally as a politician that the public affairs industry could never do business with.
"Corbyn definitely does things differently," says Craig. "He has an allergic reaction to the old style political-business event where one can pay a lot of money for an expensive ticket to engage with the party leadership. He doesn’t like things that he feels people would be excluded from attending if they’re poor.
"So clients are going to have to think very creatively: where are the constituencies that Labour needs to win and how can clients’ case be made relevant to Labour in 2017?"
McKeever advises that businesses can break through if they adopt "a real engagement with the principles that were in the Labour manifesto – around pay ratios, what businesses would have to do to get public sector contracts under a Labour government”.
He adds: "There’s real detail there and it’s not as hostile as people might think, but does require engagement and understanding."
Even Corbyn’s former deputy communications chief suggests that the Labour leader might not be completely allergic to the art of public affairs.
"Lobbying is as old as democracy," says Howell. "People have always campaigned for things and tried to win support for their policies. And as long as that’s done in an open and transparent way, then it should be no different from one political party to another.
"Obviously Jeremy is somebody who has high standards in that respect and he’s going to want to make sure that the Labour party adheres to those standards. And that’s as it should be. But I don’t think anybody doing any legitimate policy lobbying or campaigning has anything to worry about if they’re doing it in the proper manner."
All pictures by Press Association.