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The UK’s Parliamentary Lobby is an Arcane Ritual but it Works

Every Citizen's Right to Lobby Parliament - Maurice


Selected ‘Lobby’ journalists are allowed access to Westminster’s inner sanctum, close to the Chamber and MPs. It’s changing, like much in political life.

A lobby has various meanings: a large room or entranceway into a building like a hotel or public office. In the US it can apply to a domestic house, in the UK’s Staffordshire it’s a thick edible stew, while in Parliament and politics, it has other meanings.

To lobby Parliament is to seek to influence or persuade either one or both Houses or MPs themselves to take or avoid particular action. It’s a campaigning word, and applies to both well-organised, professional businesses, or one or two citizens asserting their rights/objections/pleas.

The Right to Lobby

Every citizen has right of access to Parliament to speak with his/her elected Member. That is, of course, subject to security constraints and the willingness/availability of the Member to emerge from the Palace to see them. It’s not unknown for people to queue, get into Central Lobby, which is as far as they can unaccompanied, send in a request via the Badge Messengers and wait. Wait until a message comes back that the Member is unavailable.

Sometimes groups of people demonstrate outside, while selected individuals go inside and talk to MPs. Teachers, students, nurses, farmers, public sector employees, pensioners, carers, the disabled, immigrants, environmental campaigners: there is any number of interest groups who may exercise visiting rights in any given year.

It‘s part of the same assumed right in the unwritten British constitution that there is a free press, able and willing to report facts, abuse, deviousness, incompetence, lies, personal affairs and the spending of public money in government in particular and the wider political community in general. The exposure of MPs’ expense abuses by The Daily Telegraph in 2009 was a case in point.

The Press Gallery

In a ramshackle Westminster turret room high above the Thames, sits the Parliamentary press/media in their secret lobby. Started in 1884 when a ‘gentleman’ was permitted to stand in the Lobby (the area leading to the Chamber most frequented by MPs) and talk to them off-the-record.

Newspapers used to carry reports from ‘lobby correspondents’. TV political reporters often quote indirectly from sources they have questioned, to give unattributable but usually accurate opinions, plans, ideas and counter-views to inform the public to a degree. ‘Lobby terms’ are unattributable briefings a journalist has received.

When Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, his media supremo Alastair Campbell put press briefings officially on-the-record, and cameras were allowed to watch as Blair took questions from informed journalists. That practice continues. What is not usually seen, is how government ‘spin-doctors’ work with media to focus stories as ministers would like.

Accredited journalists from national and regional media work in their gallery, and when a name comes up on the monitor of an MP speaking they are interested in, or a debate is announced they want to follow, they rush through to the cramped gallery above the Speaker’s Chair, and record what is said and any other information relevant to their stories.

The Journalistic Cartel

When the current Speaker was to be elected, former minister Tom Watson, writing in The Independent (June 2009) argued that it was time to crack open the lobby cartel and create a new era of accountability. He said that the Parliamentary Lobby was a ‘closed shop, a club, a bizarre petri dish of rivalry, personal enmity and the occasional fistfight’, and it needed major reform.

He could have been talking about MPs themselves, as far as many people were concerned, rather than reporters. His point was that important debates on local, national and international issues were ignored by a self-serving, arrogant Lobby if not considered important or sexy enough for their own news agendas.

MPs with comprehensive specialisms in uncommon issues remained anonymous to the public; reporting justice was not seen to be done. There is no outlet for minor stories which impact on thousands with long term concerns, unplanned repercussions. Watson said the 238 pass-holding lobby journalists therefore end up, ‘pack-like, chasing the same one or two stories each day’.

As Wikileaks and other internet revelations have revealed, secrecy is becoming all but impossible in the digital age. Unattributable lobby briefings may have to end. People may become more careful in what they say, even if they think they are off-air.

Lobbies Within

Either side of the Chamber stretch two parallel, narrow corridors. On the Speaker’s right hand is the ‘Aye’ lobby, and on the left, ‘No’. When a division of the House is called, the occupant of the Chair cries: ‘Clear the lobbies’, meaning all staff and press correspondents must exit Members’ Lobby, the large area adjacent to the Chamber to allow MPs to flood in to vote.

After eight minutes (to allow MPs to get in from outbuildings, bars, restaurants), the doors are locked. MPs file out of their chosen lobby, their names tallied off by clerks, so that after a few minutes, the result is announced, and the Commons proceeds to the next business.

There are always calls to reform voting, reporting, debating in and out of Parliament. Modernising accountability and increasing transparency are clearly necessary as society changes and media evolves. It has already moved a long way since Labour Chancellor High Dalton stopped to talk to a Lobby correspondent as he entered the Chamber to deliver his 1947 Budget.

The journalist got the details into his paper’s late edition before Dalton reached the point in his speech. It cost Dalton his job. Nowadays people expect the media to be informed, to follow every nuance of Westminster life as if it’s reality, fly-on-the-wall documentary. While the lobby structure needs updating, it perhaps doesn’t need wholesale rebuilding.

First published on Suite 101, 4 March 2011.

Image: Every Citizen’s Right to Lobby Parliament – Maurice

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