Lobbying is the attempt to influence the views and actions of others, usually by force of argument but sometimes by more nefarious means. It is a massive industry worth billions of pounds each year, as illustrated by the sums paid to prominent people who are thought to be persuasive such as former Prime Ministers. It is considered by many to be an art form, especially if someone’s opinion can be changed without realising that they have been influenced.
The theme of the last Countryside Forum conference held earlier this year was: ‘is countryside policy increasingly and disproportionately being influenced by single issue pressure groups?’ Many lobby groups have been around for a long time. The CLA, for example, was founded in 1907 to champion the property rights of rural landowners, the NFU set up in 1908 to promote the interests of farmers and the CPRE in 1926 to campaign for stricter planning laws to protect the countryside. All might have been considered single issue at the time but, over the years, have found that broadening their remit increases influence with policy makers. As farmers and landowners have diversified, so both the NFU and CLA have widened their interests to reflect that trend, the latter becoming the Country Land and Business Association, whilst the CPRE has recently added the Countryside Charity as a strapline.
That raises an interesting point, charitable status. By law, a charity cannot be involved in overt political lobbying but that has been interpreted by some with a degree of flexibility, leading to investigation by the Charity Commission. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust is a charity that steers clear of political campaigning, concentrating on outstanding research, the findings of which can be used by other overt lobby groups.
One of the speakers at the conference had worked for Defra for eighteen months, helping to develop the new farming policies following secession from the CAP. He described the reaction of his colleagues to policy papers and other material that crossed their desks. If it came from a conservation or environmental organisation, it was taken to be impartial and credible to be used in policy development. If it came from an organisation representing economic activity in the countryside such as the Countryside Alliance, it was treated with suspicion. There must be a vested interest, a hidden agenda, as if there was not that in all such material presented to them.
A relatively recent development has been the formation of alliances and coalitions to present a united front to politicians and policy makers. The Green Alliance was formed as long ago as 1979 as an independent think tank and charity focussed on the environment but, since Brexit, has increased its activity through the Greener UK coalition of thirteen national environmental organisations and many other supporters and networks.
This has brought an interesting trend of agendas becoming more closely aligned, with more mainstream organisations increasingly influenced by the extreme. Over the last year, the RSPB has dropped its decades-old neutrality on shooting to call for licensing of shoots. The Act Now for Animals campaign, for example, was launched earlier this summer with a paper that contained animal rights and welfare recommendations. Sponsoring organisations range from the Dog Trust and RSPCA through to Animal Aid and the League Against Cruel Sports. Shooting organisations have recently come together to form Aim to Sustain to promote the conservation benefits of game shooting.
Environmental issues have reached the top of political agendas, especially with the COP-26 conference being held in Glasgow in November. They can bring together a broad range of supporters from liberals in leafy suburbs to radical students. The Scottish National Party in the Scottish Parliament needs the support of the Green Party, the election manifesto of which contained a pledge to ban grouse shooting. The Green Party also has considerable sway in the Welsh Senedd.
There are many ways to influence opinions and policy. Social media is a means to influence a huge section of public opinion and has been used to great effect, particularly by the animal rights lobby. Such was the impact that the Labour Party went into the last General Election with a specific animal welfare manifesto that contained some animal rights measures. It was not recognised that the social media storm had been generated by a tiny group of people and that there were no votes to be gained.
Wild Justice has taken a more legal approach by taking the Government to Judicial Review on a number of occasions, notably the issue of General Licences to control pests and predators and, more recently, the release of game birds. It has had relatively little effect apart from disruption and expense.
One tends to think of lobbying aimed at Government but it is also aimed at companies. Wild Justice has condemned Sainsbury’s for selling game contaminated with lead shot in an attempt to stop the supermarket buying game as part of its anti-shooting campaign. Until all game is shot with lead-free ammunition, lead can be removed but minute traces remain. Chris Packham has urged his followers not to buy intensively reared chicken, another example of putting pressure on the supermarkets that wield disproportionate power in the food chain.
It is natural for lobby groups to play on the emotions of the public. Where scientific evidence is quoted, it is often misleading in that the evidence is carefully selected to boost a particular point. The pressure on politicians, policy makers and companies will not diminish, but we must ensure that any lobby material is treated with scepticism, the evidence checked and false claims exposed.