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Labour for Sale

Keir Starmer says he wants to clean up politics. Instead, he has facilitated a lobbyist takeover of the Labour Party, where predatory gambling firms, big oil and gig economy giants are buying influence at our expense.

Labour leader Keir Starmer (left) and Bloomberg Director Constantin Cotzias attending Labour's Business Forum during the Labour Party conference in Liverpool. Picture date: Monday October 9, 2023. (Photo by Peter Byrne / PA Images via Getty Images)

In 2020 the Labour Party issued a press release in which its deputy leader, Angela Rayner, ripped into the Conservative government over ‘reports that lobbyists have been secretly serving as advisers to government ministers and departments’ and other revelations of ‘cronyism’ around ‘businesses and individuals with close links to the Conservative Party’. Rayner said it showed there was ‘one rule for lobbyists and their paying clients and another rule for the rest of us’.

This press release has been deleted from Labour’s website, along with all other pre-2022 notices. But Rayner’s own ‘battle bus’ is now ‘sponsored’ and part-funded by a Labour-connected lobbyist. According to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, Pentland Communications, a lobbying firm set up in 2018 by Barrie Cunning, paid Labour HQ £6,000 to fund Rayner’s ‘campaigning’, including ‘the provision of a branded vehicle’, a camper van with the slogan ‘Rayner on the Road’. Since August, Labour’s deputy leader has been using it for campaigning. Pentland represents big housebuilders like Barratt. Rayner’s responsibilities include Labour housing policy. Pentland says it can help firms achieve ‘commercial objectives’ using its ‘good political relationships’. Paying for Rayner’s battle bus can’t hurt those ‘relationships’. Pentland says other political events are also business opportunities. It tells clients that each party conference also ‘provides a good opportunity’ to meet politicians ‘in both formal and informal settings and have those important conversations’.

Rayner’s apparent reversal shows how Labour has fully embraced the corporate lobbying it denounced as ‘cronyism’ when it applied to the Conservatives. Concerns about corruption have disappeared as Labour pursues the intense lobbying that has come along with its lead in the polls.

In 2010 Tory leader David Cameron, promising to clean up politics, gave what is still the best definition of ‘corporate lobbying’ in the UK, which he called ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’. Cameron gave an insider’s view: ‘[W]e all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.’

He said it corroded people’s belief in politics, with ‘money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest’. Cameron and his government went on to mire themselves deeply in this scandal — notably in his personal lobbying for the now-disgraced Greensill bank. You could take this as another never-trust-a-Tory warning . But it may also show that ‘centrist’ politicians denouncing corporate corruption when in the opposition wallow in it when in government.

Cameron highlighted how the ‘revolving door’ of ex-ministers and ex-advisers ‘for hire’ is key to lobbying. Labour has gone further, accepting lobbyists as its current officials. Abdi Duale was elected to Labour’s National Executive last September on the ‘moderate’ slate. The same month Duale became a director at FTI, a lobbying firm. FTI also employs former Labour MP Gemma Doyle, a director of key Labour ‘moderate’ group Progressive Britain. FTI offer clients ‘direct advocacy’ with ‘elected and appointed policymakers’. FTI’s recent clients include Palantir, the American spy-tech firm that is chasing contracts in the NHS.

At the last Labour conference, Alice Perry won a seat on the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC). Typically for Labour, this dull-sounding body has significant power: it decides what debates Labour conferences hear. Perry, who was backed by both ‘moderate’ and ‘soft left’ factions, is also a public affairs director for the lobbying firm Cicero. The company tells clients she will be ‘advising on Labour Party engagement strategies’. Among Cicero’s clients are financial firms like Barclays and Blackrock, ‘buy-now-pay-later’ outfit Klarna, and privatisers like Serco.

In 2021 Rachel Reeves attacked the government over public services ‘being outsourced to a large private company like Serco, which has a poor track record and known links to the Conservative Party’. Now Serco hires Labour-linked lobbying firms. Serco executives shared platforms with shadow ministers at Labour’s 2023 conference. Perhaps we all misunderstood, and Reeves really objected to Serco’s ‘known links to the Conservative Party’ because she thought they should have known links to the Labour Party instead.

As Tory support crumbles, the lobbying industry is scrabbling for anyone with any connection to Labour.

Claire Ainsley was Keir Starmer’s director of policy until last December, helping him drop all his promises for progressive policies like nationalisation. In June, Ainsley became a senior adviser at WPI Strategy, a lobbying firm set up and run by two leading Tories, Sean Worth and Nick Faith; Worth was Cameron’s adviser on NHS privatisation. WPI Strategy offers corporations help with ‘influencing change’ in ‘regulatory and political environments’. WPI said Ainsley would use her experience to advise clients on ‘how to prepare for a potential change of government’. WPI’s current clients include the owners of South West Water, who were fined £2 million this April for illegally dumping sewage in the sea, giant commercial landlord British Land, and Vodafone.

Hanbury Strategy is another lobbying firm set up by former Cameron advisers. In 2022 Hanbury hired Chris Ward as a director. Ward was Keir Starmer’s deputy chief of staff in 2021, having worked for Starmer since 2015. Ward now heads up Hanbury’s ‘Labour Unit’ to ‘help clients navigate what could be the next Government’. Hanbury’s current clients include gambling giant Flutter, finance firms like UBS and Blackstone, and oil driller Navitas Petroleum.

Isaac Levido was the Conservative Party campaign director in the 2019 election. Rishi Sunak also hired Levido to see if he could turn around the Tories’ dire polling. When he is not working as a Tory election guru, Levido is a corporate lobbyist. Levido set up the lobbying firm Fleetwood Strategy in 2020. Fleetwood says it can help clients ‘shift the dial’ in their favour through ‘Government and Opposition engagement’. In February 2023 this Tory-led firm hired former chair of Labour Students, Melantha Chittenden, to help with ‘Labour strategy’. Tribune readers may remember Chittenden as one of the ‘moderates’ who attacked Labour for not trying to reverse Brexit in the Corbyn years. She was one of the leaders of a disruptive protest at the 2018 Labour Live event, raising a banner demanding Labour push for a second Brexit referendum. She now works for Isaac Levido, architect of Boris Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit done’ strategy, which helped trounce Labour in 2019.

Fleetwood’s current clients include Airbnb and construction (and PFI) giant Balfour Beatty. Fleetwood is also one of the firms representing Palantir.

This list of Labour insiders joining mainly Tory-led lobbying firms isn’t by any means exhaustive, though it may be exhausting. Corporations want to take big money contracts from the government while reducing any regulation or tax on their businesses. They want to shape the policy agenda and have turned to the consultants — as well as their own in-house lobbyists — to do so. Lobbying firms that spent years relying on their links with the Tories are adapting to a likely Labour government.

But something big is happening inside Labour as well. The party is welcoming lobbyists as the proof of, and route to, its ‘business engagement’. Under Starmer, Labour takes corporate support as a vote of confidence. If ‘business’ supports ‘labour’, then the party must be doing the right thing — and can hope for friendlier treatment by the corporate-run press.

Rachel Reeves has a stated aim to reshape corporate Britain by her ‘industrial policy’. Labour’s ‘corporate engagement’ is already reshaping the lobbying industry, elevating new players who look closer to the party as the party gets closer to power.

Blairite Jim Murphy was Scottish secretary of state under the last Labour government. He was Scottish Labour’s leader when the party was wiped out north of the border in 2015, with the website of his consultancy firm, Arden Strategy, describing him as ‘senior member of Labour’s election-winning teams’.

Murphy set up the firm in 2015, but it has grown rapidly as Labour gets closer to power. It had four members of staff in 2021, but now claims a ‘team’ of twenty-two on its website, including former Redcar Labour MP Anna Turley. She is now Labour’s Redcar candidate, so will probably re-enter Parliament. Arden also employs former assistants to Rachel Reeves and Yvette Cooper, Starmer’s former head of Labour Business Relations, and former senior Labour Scottish officials. Murphy’s firm is using its Labour link as a key selling point, offering clients the chance to ‘interact with Labour politicians’ and help ‘Labour and business continue to strengthen their relationships’. The Labour Party is in turn embracing Arden. Labour’s December 2022 business conference in Canary Wharf was seen as a key piece of Labour’s business engagement, with corporate leaders meeting Starmer, Reeves, and a host of shadow ministers. Arden Strategy was an official partner of this conference.

This year all those attending Labour’s main conference in Liverpool received an official party email declaring that Arden was a Labour partner organisation and directing people to visit the ‘Arden lounge’. This lounge was a permanent base for Arden inside the conference centre where the lobbyists could organise their ‘panel discussions, drinks receptions, breakfast meetings, roundtables, and dinners’ with their clients and shadow ministers. Arden does not list its clients, but its events have been organised with BT Group, British Gas owner Centrica, and Deliveroo.

Labour is, in effect, using lobbyists to run much of its ‘business engagement’. Party Chair Anneliese Dodds and Shadow Business Secretary Jonathan Reynolds also both accepted free staff ‘on secondment’ from lobbyists to help run their offices last year.

The last Labour government ran into a ‘cash for access’ scandal in 1998, when The Observer exposed lobbyists with New Labour links helping their clients get close to the new government. This was the first big blemish on Blair’s government. We are very likely to see a re-run of this scandal.

But there is a bigger issue.

Rachel Reeves aims to invest up to £28 billion a year of public money in the ‘green investment plan’. Under this a National Wealth Fund will put government investment and subsidies into ‘strategic’ industries like battery plants and steel. Great British Energy will also be a public investment fund, focusing on energy investments. These could be transformative initiatives.

But they could also be massive rip-offs by rapacious firms who buy connections to a Labour government and get favourable deals in return. We might end up with firms that suck money out of the public sector for poor work, giving another generation of future/former minsters jobs. The current wave of junior Labour officials taking corporate lobbying jobs acts as a kind of human promise, showing future ministers that they too can look forward to corporate jobs with a Labour government. This isn’t a theoretical risk: it is exactly what happened when the last Labour government embraced PFI and outsourcing. The lobbying and the jobs-for-the-boys-and-girls sweetened a bitter pill — although the former ministers got the sweeteners; we just got the bitterness.