In his conference speech, when he wasn’t turning conversations with the everyman in Watford into soundbites about the state of the nation, Ed Miliband was saying things like it is wrong that "in our politics it's the few who have all the access, and everyone else is locked out". He also said that it shouldn't be "just a few powerful people at the top who can be heard".
That sounds like a good point, but at the conference, his party were selling the right to speak to them to big corporations for thousands of pounds, which jars with that part of his speech quite a lot.
You’d think that the Labour Party conference would feel like a big left-wing love in. And it sort of did, but there was a simultaneous and contradictory ambience – that of a trade fair. In front of the main Conference hall, there was an exhibition of around 160 stands. Some were taken up by traditional Labour oriented groups: The Trades Union Congress (TUC) and individual unions have places, as do smaller campaigns. But apart from that, the exhibition at the conference is one of the zones where big corporations get chummy with the people’s party. With Labour ahead in the polls, businesses that made the trip to Manchester could well have been trying to make friends with the next government. Walking around that space, I got a snapshot of what businesses are worried that a future Labour government will regulate them to death, and which companies want to win the next load of government contracts.
A page for the conference brochure
Labour’s brochure for exhibitors was pretty clear that they were selling the chance of influencing the party, saying, “your stand is the most direct way to explain the work of your organisation to visitors and MPs. It can enable your organisation to maintain a base and provides you with your own dedicated meeting point during Conference.” According to the party the “Top reasons that continue to attract both old and new exhibitors” are the “Opportunities to network with local, national and European Politicians”. Exhibitors paid up to £13,000 for a stall, as well as the cost of manning the stall, so big companies with deep pockets are prominent.
This was obvious even before you got into the conference centre. One of the largest business-funded stalls, the “London Lounge” sat inside the “secure zone” in front of the main exhibition hall. The Lounge hosted events for Labour delegates, MP’s and councillors. The branding on window of the large marquee-like structure showed that it was funded by NewsUK – the new name for Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper group. Ed Miliband’s stand against the News of the World over influence peddling and hacking could have meant the company got somewhat frozen out of Labour circles. What better way to make friends again than by shelling out to put a big marquee that looks like an off-brand, service station coffee shop at conference?
The lobbying carried on inside the main exhibition hall. Ed Miliband said last year that, “when Google goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid paying its taxes, I think it’s wrong.” Google responded by erecting a whole house inside the Labour conference. The company wasn’t making any direct political points – the Google House is just full of PR people showing off the firms web enabled wristwatches and the like.
Facebook have also been accused of avoiding tax, and they also had a stall at the Labour conference. In one of those phoney PR engagement strategies, Facebook were inviting delegates to “write something” in felt tip on their “wall”. Someone had written “Pay more tax”.
The Google and Facebook stands were examples of soft lobbying – they weren’t actually saying all that much, and their presence was intended merely to come off as largely benevolent enterprises in the minds of the party members and future ministers, and certainly not worthy of targeting for punitive legislation.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) stand was a classic bit of active lobbying designed to head off regulation. Last year Ed Miliband attacked betting shops for their “fixed odds betting terminals” – usually those computerised roulette wheels that cost a pound a spin. They are blamed for hoovering money out of the pockets of poor gambling addicts.
Miliband said the “are spreading like an epidemic along high streets with the pawn shops and payday lenders”, and are “a magnet for crime and antisocial behaviour". Labour proposed regulations which could cap the number of bookies allowed in any street, the number of lucrative fixed odds betting terminals in each bookie and the stakes that the machines can use.
The bookies have a solution – regulate themselves. So the ABB have launched their own self-regulating body, called “The Senet Group”. This board, including big firms like Coral, Ladbrokes and Paddy Power promises to “promote responsible gambling” so Labour won’t need to back new laws. I guess if everybody could just be nice and make sure they don't go overboard, you wouldn't need any laws at all.
The ABB lobbyist was pretty vague when I asked her about the details – the “Senet Group” doesn’t even have a chairperson, let alone board members, although she promised these would be appointed “as soon as possible”. However, she was able to give me a “Senet Group” cake in place of actual details. It tasted horrible, like sugary shaving foam.
As well as angering bookies, Miliband has rubbed energy firms up the wrong way by promising that he will impose a price freeze on them if he becomes Prime Minister, so that fewer pensioners have to choose between eating and heating their homes this winter. He said that electricity and gas firms are “part of the problem, not the solution” to high prices, leaving customers feeling “ripped off”. Two of the “big six” firms didn’t take this as a reason not to give the party thousands of pounds to have a stall at the conference. EDF had a massive “island site” display, while E.ON built a kind of Wendy house in which Labour delegates could hear why they are definitely not overcharging predators.
Caroline Flint, Shadow Energy Secretary said in her speech to conference that, "Energy Companies have not played fair", and that there are "unfair prices, sharp practice and a secretive industry". She promised a "tough new watchdog, with a bite as good as its bark" to deal with the energy firms, including threats they could be "shut down". Perhaps all this shows that Labour can take corporate money and still legislate against those corporations, but with Labour’s history of being successfully lobbied you’ve got to wonder if E.ON and EDF’s presence will have an impact on policy. Will Flint’s watchdog end up as ferocious as it would have if the energy firms hadn’t been in the exhibition space?
Miliband has hyped his energy bills freeze idea as an example of how he has "the strength to stand up to powerful vested interests". I guess we’ll have to wait for a potential Labour government to find out if taking money and cupcakes from those interests makes any difference.
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