It’s Tuesday Night at Labour Party Conference and I have just walked past the drinks reception held by Progressive Britain, one of the leading organisations of Labour’s Blairite right, formerly known as Progress.
The group have much to celebrate: polls are in Labour’s favour, Conference is getting positive press, and Starmer’s latest re-shuffle cemented Labour’s right wing in the Shadow Cabinet at the expense of the party’s soft left.
Top Labour figures Wes Streeting and Alison McGovern were key speakers at the shindig. But Progressive Britain wanted help to organise their drinks party, held on the ground floor of Liverpool’s Tate Gallery: the banners at the party said ‘Progressive Britain,’ but the video screens read ‘Field Consulting: Shaping Policy, Perception and Places.’
Field is a corporate lobbyist who helped pay for the party; requests for invites were directed to the lobbying company. The company represents several private rail firms, including Aviva, Govia and First Group, who want to blunt Labour’s limited rail renationalisation programme. Other clients include Elephant and Castle Development UK, which makes money from for-profit rentals that replaced former council housing in the famous London estate, and the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, who are very active at Conference trying to persuade politicians that their speculative, expensive pump-carbon-undersea schemes are a key solution to global warming.
Chris Rumfitt, who founded Field in 2014, started his career in the Labour Party, working on the 1997 election and serving in Blair’s Number 10 under Alastair Campbell. Rumfitt hired top Cameron aides to help him lobby during the Tory years but is undoubtedly excited that Labour looks set to return to power.
His involvement in this drinks party — Rumfitt addressed the event, standing next to Streeting — has a double function: it gets his firm and their clients a route of access to the likely next government, and it shows the current crop of Labour people that if they run an equally corporate-friendly government, then they too may look forward to a post-politics career as business lobbyists.
Labour Conference brought over ten thousand folk to Liverpool: party members, councillors, trade unionists, socialists, and charity campaigners. It has also brought corporate lobbyists, who have invaded every space they can. There is a large exhibition area where lobbyists offer delegates childish games to win over party members. Sainsbury’s will let you play with a ‘Scalextric’ slot-racing set, with shopping trollies replacing cars zooming across a realistic layout, which somehow proves the firm is a responsible retailer.
Lobbyists have ‘lounges’ — permanent offices inside the conference. Demand is so high that they have erected inflatable marquees with black rubberised walls, squatting outside the main conference halls to serve as extra lounges. One is the PLMR (Political Lobbying and Media Research) lounge, run by Labour donor Kevin Craig, who gave the party £100,000 this year. PLMR clients include HC-One, the Care Home giant that has faced allegations of the most serious neglect of residents, and the Battersea Power Station Redevelopment, which was criticised for cutting back on social housing but sticking with luxury flats on the iconic London site.
iNHouse Communications, a lobbyist set up by key members of Boris Johnson’s old Mayoral Campaign, has a marquee, while Arden Communications, the lobbying firm set up by Jim Murphy, Labour’s former Leader in Scotland, have their lounge set up inside the main hall. Under Murphy’s lead, Labour lost nearly all their Scottish seats in 2015, but Labour’s right-leaning recovery is making Murphy a second-time-around winner. His firm has massively expanded because corporations want to pay for its offer of ‘real-life knowledge, insight and understanding of Labour’ thanks to their ‘wealth of experience of former Labour politicians.’ Arden’s clients at the conference include British Gas owner Centrica — notorious for firing and rehiring thousands of its engineers — and gig economy firm Deliveroo.
Corporate lobbying of Labour Conference is now extensive enough to get reported on the TV News, but mostly just as a sign of Labour’s success, with businesses wanting to ‘get to know’ the party. But lobbying is really about shaping policy; the corporations are on an ‘influence operation.’
Arranging fringe meetings — often through a think tank — is an effective way of meeting the Shadow Minister. I’ve been to dozens of such meetings in Liverpool. Just before the lobbyist-run Progressive Britain party, I attended a meeting where Shadow Social Care Minister Andrew Gwynne discussed ‘Improving Health and Social Care.’ The event was sponsored by US privatisation giant Maximus, who put their UK boss, Dr Paul Williams, on the panel.
Typically, think tanks will charge corporations around £15,000 to £20,000 to arrange such meetings, with the sponsor helping choose the subject and panel. Since 2014, Maximus has held a huge contract with the Department for Work and Pensions worth hundreds of millions of pounds to assess disabled people for benefits. Disability campaigners have been enraged by the firm’s performance, as unfair tests lead to benefits being stopped before being overturned after lengthy appeals. As a result, Maximum has become a byword for the grim effects of privatisation.
After repeatedly thanking Maximus, Gwynne outlined Labour’s plans to shift health spending from hospitals to preventative public health programmes. He said that ‘how it’s delivered will be done at the local level, with local leaders taking the initiative,’ with the instruction they have ‘got to innovate.’ Local commissioning of ‘innovative’ public service contracts is a typical opening to privatisers like Maximus: shifting healthcare from hospital to prevention could be a big step forward — or it could mean outsourcers grabbing contracts to try profiting from a ‘personal responsibility’ regime.
Maximus’ boss agreed with Gwynne that government should ‘trust local experts to deliver’ the new style healthcare. His firm has bought its way into this conversation for a few grand to pay off a think tank, hire a room and buy some wine and mini-quiches for the audience.
The growing corporate influence on display in Liverpool stands in contrast to the disenfranchisement of party members, who find themselves shut out of decisions on policy. This trend has been mirrored by the drastic increase in donations from big business topping up the party coffers and showering front bench MPs with freebies, and in exchange, policies to redistribute wealth and tackle exploitative employment have been ditched.
Keir Starmer and his team have triumphantly declared that ‘Labour is back in business,’ but it is clear that business is back in Labour too, buying influence and shaping policy to its interests.