The public affairs industry as we approach the Senedd elections
Many people working in the Welsh public affairs sector are or have been politically active. Many are not. This is not a radical statement, it is inevitable that an industry which requires in depth political understanding and interpretation is going to attract those of us who proudly don an anorak both metaphorically in debates of policy minutiae and actually when it comes to a December canvassing session.
My door-knocking was on behalf of a Prime Minister who was rather fond of the phrase “we are all in this together”. While inevitably such statements are open to challenge and policy scrutiny, at that point in time I do think that across the mainstream spectrum we had a politics which was broadly of the view that bringing people together was a desired outcome. Sadly, today this appears passé.
In recent times, both the political right and left have seen the relative decline of moderate voices to the benefit of ever greater emphasis on ideological purity. Nor, as will be amply demonstrated this November in the United States, is it by any means only a British phenomenon. With less interest in evidence or compromise comes more tribalism based on feelings and identity. Of course, these are simply features of human nature but when pursued with a self-certainty in one’s own argument over all others, something which is far from the reality of our flawed human nature, then it can damage political discourse. What is more, the identity often appears to be defined not just by what one stands for but also what one stands against.
Numerous bodies have found themselves dragged into this sphere, perhaps none more so than the BBC which is lambasted on social media on a daily basis by both right and left for supposed bias. The Beeb is a hulking corporation which has the primary purpose of sharing content to the masses – it is inevitably going to misjudge how to report some things but the nuance which could mitigate against these flaws is lost in the maelstrom of cries of widespread bias. In turn, this leads to some in the media industry to conclude that if both right and left think they are biased they must be doing a good job, which is itself an overly simplistic interpretation.
I reference the BBC as a prominent example, but the underlying theme beneath the attacks on its impartiality is relevant more widely. It suits the narrative pushed by political parties to be seen as the outsider. Times have changed, I recall that after Gordon Brown sought to pitch Labour as “insurgents” in 2009 eyebrows were raised at his use of a word which had been more typically used in reference to conflict zones. These days, to portray yourself as the insurgent against the political establishment appears to be the desired electoral stance and as we saw with Boris Johnson’s 2019 campaign by no means do you have to be in opposition to deploy the tactic.
To be a political insurgent one must define the political establishment that you are outside and of which you are the victim. From such a perspective it becomes easy to lump together organisations which you feel (here again feeling often trumps evidence) are against you and your perspective. No doubt, there is much tactical discussion as to whom it suits the political insurgent to be opposed.
As with the BBC, there is much to challenge within the public affairs sector. More can be done to improve transparency and relevance to the wider Welsh population and I certainly hope that PAC is part of the solution. However, the industry is not the cosy consensus group-think blob that some would seek to portray for their own partisan reasons. We have good reason not to become anyone’s ‘political football’. Off the top of my head I can instantly think of people within the sector who are current or former active members of Labour, Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and Lib Dems. I also know quite a few who wouldn’t want to touch party politics with a barge-pole but still have strong opinions. Of one mind, the sector is not.
Nor do people within public affairs view every issue through the prism of their own political views. Indeed, it is part of the art of being a good public affairs professional that you can objectively look at a topic and consider how parties across the political spectrum are likely to react. Analysis and understanding will always add more value than personal opinion and tribalism. Perhaps on that front public affairs really is quite different to some of this country’s recent politics!
However, I do not write this article simply to defend the public affairs industry. I think we need to be alert to the changed nature of political discourse so that we, as a profession, avoid the mis-steps that can politicise the sector. If we find ourselves critiqued for being too close to one party or perspective, we should be prepared to objectively consider the merits of such comments. It is in the interests of our employers and our clients that we can talk constructively to everyone in politics. The risk is that if we simply push back against the rabble-rousing rhetoric of the self-styled political insurgents that we inadvertently entrench the zero-sum ‘us versus them’ narrative which they are seeking to perpetuate. What we should reject is any effort to lump public affairs together as anyone’s opponent of electoral convenience.
There are certain roles which are politically restricted, but for the most part it is a matter for our employers to make a judgement call as to what extent we can be politically active. I have been fortunate that while previously working in public affairs in England, and now Wales, I have always had bosses who were encouraging and trusted my judgement in balancing constructive political activity in my own time with professionalism in work. Even so, when I did want to seek election I took a moment to discuss it with my boss before applying to be a candidate. It is also important to realise that there may be occasions when an employer might not specialise in political engagement and thus be relying on the public affairs professional to objectively critique the impact to the organisation of them actively engaging in politics. A tricky balance, but one that eventually comes down to professionalism and respect.
A need for complete political neutrality is required in some roles, but for the most part it is a matter of agreement between employer and employee. Sometimes supposed partisanship can be overstated. My involvement in politics has seen me build friendships with activists in parties as wide ranging as the Greens and the Brexit Party. Involvement in active party politics is something of a minority interest and a bond grows between those who take part which, for all but the most tribal, extends beyond the colour of the rosette they wear.
My experience of public affairs engagement with MSs of all parties in Wales has been excellent. Some of them know that I once stood for election, I suspect many do not – none of it matters for the purpose of that conversation. I recall walking into a meeting with a Labour Minister and they had clearly been provided with a briefing pack about who was in the meeting. Before the Minister had time to close the file, I spotted a photo of me which was presumably attached to a short biography. That photo could only have come from the Newport Conservatives website. It might have led to an initial sharp intake of breath on my part, but it did not alter the nature or tone of what went on to be a very constructive discussion.
I suspect that my own ambitions for elected office are behind me, but among my public affairs colleagues I am sure there are future MSs and MPs. I look forward to their success, but there is a marked distinction between active party politics and discussing policy within the public affairs sector. One of the great joys in my job is meeting with other policy officers and throwing around ideas, some of which may eventually make it into a list of manifesto calls. The debate is vibrant and polite, serious on tackling the issue but with moments of humour during the conversation. Of course, the political parties are developing their own policy, but it would be to miss an opportunity not to make use of the valuable asset to Welsh democracy that exists in the public affairs sector.
It is on the point of value that I will conclude. The public affairs sector has much to offer Welsh civic society. To those who perceive the only value of the sector to be as a punchbag of electoral convenience we must push back against their lazy narrative. In doing so we should not do so as part of a partisan or identity-based disagreement but rather as a responsible public affairs sector. One with many ideas rooted in varied perspectives.
Written by Nicolas Webb. Nicolas is a Policy and Public Affairs Officer in the health sector who recently graduated with an MSc Econ in International Relations from Cardiff University. He serves on the PAC Committee.