September 23, 2006

Eating out in Manchester

Most of us haven't even got there yet but the conference has already produced its first scandal. According to the Times Peter Bingle, Head of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs has been caught selling seats at tables with Labour Ministers during conference for £1,500+. But surprisingly, given the politica mood, the uproar that this has produced has not come from the opposition but rather the lobbying industry itself.

Why? Well every political party knows that conference is a great opportunity to fundraise- there are dinners that need sponsoring, fringe events that need corporate speakers, the list goes on. No (sensible) politician would dare criticise this behaviour in fear that the media's spotlight might focus upon their own party's record.

The industry however is in a compleletly different boat. It is desperate demonstrate its credibility to the wider public against a backdrop of popular suspicion around its activities. But a more pressing matter is probably to distance itself from any of its rival's acitivities that make the front page in order to reassure its own clients.

Has Bingle done wrong? Business needs to talk to Government, just as Government needs to talk to business. Good policy depends upon it. Neutral platforms, such as fringe events or sponsored dinners, allow this to happen. Moreover conference can provide the opportunity for business leaders to express genuine concerns about Government policy to Minsiters during a quick cup of coffee or pint of beer.

Needless to say this all costs money. Corporate passes to conference don't come cheap neither does entry into Labour's 1000 club.

However there is a distinction to make between this behaviour and what the Times alledges Bingle was doing. If we are to believe the paper, he was booking tables with Ministers and then flogging those having secured the Minister's participation. On what basis did these Ministers agree to attend? And since when could an intermeditary buy and sell access to HM's Government?

Believe me, this is a world away from booking your place at Conference and bumping into Tony in the hotel bar. The industry is right to distance themselves from the activities Bingle is alleged to have carried out, even if its motivates are not quite what it makes out, but politicians too should have the courage to stand up against this sort of behaviour. Life would be much easier for all concerned if they could be a little more up front about what goes on at conference, and the justification for it.