Lunch with... Carl Thomson
This week, PRCA director general Francis Ingham breaks bread with Whitehouse Consultancy director Carl Thomson at Shepherd's restaurant.
The political earthquake has happened; the plates have settled down; Jeremy Corbyn’s team is in place at Labour HQ. Elsewhere in Westminster, I am lunching with Carl Thomson. Before our plates arrive, we dive straight in to the state of the Labour Party.
"I think most people never really expected the Labour Party would go through with it," says Thomson. "There was an expectation that maybe at the last minute Andy Burnham would come through. But that obviously didn’t happen, and now Labour is in a really difficult position. Corbyn is the first major party leader to begin his tenure in office with negative poll ratings."
I suggest that it can’t all be bad, and Thomson offers this analysis:
"One thing Corbyn’s advisors have been very clever about is promoting the idea that he isn’t politics as usual. That he’s not a normal kind of politician. Even the small things such as him coming out onto the conference stage holding cups of tea for himself and John McDonnell. They’ve tapped into this idea that the public are fed up with overly-spun politicians who stick to the same script."
And he draws parallels with other parties and countries: "It’s part of the same trend that we’ve seen with Nigel Farage; with the Lib Dems in 2010; with Donald Trump and Bernie Saunders over in America."
I ask how he’s advising Whitehouse clients to engage with this new politics.
He says: "The conventional wisdom is that it’s going to be very hard for Labour to win the next election under the current leadership team. The Conservatives will have to try pretty hard to lose. But you’d be wrong to ignore Labour. Labour MPs will always have a degree of influence and authority, whether that’s through the Select Committee system, or whether it’s through the initiatives and actions of individual campaigning backbench MPs.
"While the smart public affairs practitioners are going to prioritise links with the Conservatives, they’re also going to build cross-party support for issues –it gives you more credibility, and makes it more likely that an issue is going to be taken up. Corbyn’s election doesn’t change that."
We move on the Lib Dems, and discuss if there’s a way back for them. Farron had suggested recently that Labour’s move to the left opened up a fire exit for them.
Thomson offers his view – that the Lib Dems could make progress, but that there’s no sign of it yet in the opinion polls
"The big problem they’ve got at the moment with only eight MPs, and with their shadow team made up of assorted Councillors and members of the House of Lords, is that they are struggling to get air time. Having lost their regular PMQ slot, they will find it difficult to reach out to a wider audience. So they need to take the long view. They need to concentrate on regaining their local government base."
And Cameron? Luckiest ever Prime Minister or what?
Thomson agrees: "Yes. But also he’s at his best when his back is against the wall. He excels under pressure. He rebranded the Conservative Party; he turned it back into an election winning machine; he dealt with UKIP."
I suggest his record won’t look so rosy if he loses the European referendum. "I believe that Britain will vote to stay in the European Union, with a 60/40 or 65/35 vote," says Thomson.
And as for UKIP? "People will look at the UKIP general election campaign and say that it was a tremendous wasted opportunity. Their campaign was poorly conceived, quite unpleasant, and turned off a lot of voters. They allowed their opponents to define them by all of their negative characteristics."
Speaking of negative characteristics, we move on to lobbying regulation….
Thomson says: "The principle behind the Lobbying Act was a very good one. The problem we have is the lack of coverage. The regulations don’t cover in-house lobbyists; don’t cover PR companies that engage in public affairs as part of a PR campaign; don’t cover the think tank world. That means the existing self-regulatory bodies have a tremendous role to play. They facilitate the transparency and openness that agencies want –they want to be able to declare all of their clients, rather than the very limited number ORCL allows."
Finally, we discuss his company. I ask what’s next. Thomson talks straight away about people.
"The best thing about us is our team. We have a new managing director Helen Munro who came back who, having worked at Whitehouse eight years ago. That says a lot about the agency.
"And we are much broader than just public affairs. I think that lots of industry perceptions of Whitehouse are years out-of-date. Just look at the list of our clients - Britvic, Google, Anchor House."
And then the cold analysis of the political scene changes into a passion for his clients as he talks about what they’re doing with Anchor.
"It’s a fantastic charity doing some wonderful things that meet so many of the Government’s objectives. They’re dealing with homelessness; developing the skills agenda; getting people back into the workplace. All absolutely in line with IDS’s aims. And then you have another arm of government –HMRC- saying “Actually, we are going to aggressively pursue you and try and stop all of this happening”.
I venture that his example would be a fantastic riposte to those who view lobbying as all about big corporates.
He hits back: "Look at some of the more successful campaigns of the last five or ten years. Everything from Make Poverty History; to the Millennium Development Goals; to some of the charity campaigns that we’ve seen. They are all the result of proper, good sustained public affairs engagement. The public affairs industry is an inherently good thing. I’m proud to be part of it."
And which of us could argue with that?