Public Affairs

A new parliamentary landscape

Weber Shandwick’s Jon McLeod sees a tight Commons majority as offering more opportunities for lobbying. He shares his reflections with Peter Cheney.

Jon McLeod can certainly reflect on the post-election landscape with a sense of déjà vu. As Weber Shandwick’s Chairman for corporate, financial and public affairs, McLeod is one of the UK’s most experienced public affairs professionals.
After joining a small consultancy (Westminster Strategy) in 1994, he saw the then Conservative majority “being eroded … and it eventually disappeared.”

As one Education Bill went through Parliament, McLeod and his colleagues were “able to deliver amendments in committee day after day because you only had to get one person to vote the wrong way and you’d amended the Bill.” The new regulatory system for lobbyists, which went live in April, is a move that he strongly welcomes.
“We’ve got, hopefully, more transparency and more confidence in it,” he comments. “The recent scandals in lobbying have tended to focus on members of Parliament trying to be lobbyists, which I wish they would stop doing. Leave it to the professionals.” Codes of conduct are already in place for the self-regulatory bodies and he sees a need to “engrain” and promote those standards.

As for the culture of Whitehall, McLeod notes that special advisors are “just the same” as when he started: “They’re very young, they’re very shirty and very self-important.”

Real change – and for the better – has taken place in how the Civil Service operates with the organisation becoming “more streamlined” with a focus on getting the job done, particularly in the business departments: “They are generally more user-friendly and more pragmatic than they were before and that has been real progress.”

The new Conservative Government has “quite a vigorous programme which progressively will cause more antagonism as the honeymoon wears off.”

On the outcome of the election, McLeod remarks that Britain is now more polarised than before and comments that a very defined political geography has taken shape (see opposite). More autonomy in fiscal and social policy, in his view, must be balanced with more cohesion, not just within the UK but between North and South in an Irish context.

McLeod adds: “The kaleidoscope has been shaken and we need to reassure people – whether you’re a UKIP voter or a DUP voter or you’re an SNP voter – that what you voted for will be articulated in some form in public policy terms. Otherwise, people will get very frustrated.”

UKIP’s performance represents a “democratic problem” for the electoral system. The party was backed by almost 3.9 million voters but only won a single seat.
A parliamentary knife-edge opens up considerable opportunities for interest groups – not only to make their case but to change the law. Officials and secondary legislation will play an important role as the Government will want to avoid tight votes.

Its main priorities will include ‘English votes for English laws’ and the redrawing of constituency boundaries. “Fractious” committee work and late night sittings, in his view, are likely to become the norm. The House of Lords may also push its remit further on controversial issues as it effectively has an anti-Tory majority.
In the media, the Daily Mail, Telegraph and News UK will seek to push the Tories to the right. The appointment of John Whittingdale – a critic of the BBC – as Culture Secretary confirms the impression of ‘punishing’ the corporation for its perceived left-wing bias.

McLeod is keen to highlight the emergence of ‘powerhouse politics’ – the devolution of budgets to strong local authorities in England – which stands in contrast with the highly centralised state of the 1980s and 1990s. The Conservatives will also press the devolved nations to take on more responsibility for raising their finances.

David Cameron, he predicts, will push ahead with renegotiating the UK’s relationship with Europe and possibly deliver an early referendum. Business groups should be considering their role in a referendum campaign and what, if anything, they want to achieve from the renegotiation process.

A narrow majority will refocus attention on Parliament and make old-fashioned lobbying “more worthwhile”. Opinion polls have been discredited but social media, the mobilisation of the next generation, and voter registration are “untapped well-springs” in the political world. Finally, a devolved state means that the maxim “all politics is local” is truer than it ever has been.

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