11 August 2023

Why is the Government rolling out the red carpet for its opponents?

By Fiona Bulmer

After Greenpeace’s stunt at the Prime Minister’s house, the Government quickly announced it would no longer meet with them.

A sensible enough move, you might think – but the most surprising thing is that Greenpeace ever occupied ministers’ time in the first place.  After all the group’s website proudly lists the range of law suits it is pursuing against that same government. It sets out its commitment to tackling the ‘legacy of colonialism and systemic racism’ and its demand for oil companies ‘to apologise for their crimes’.

None of that deterred Environment Minister Lord Benyon from meeting Greenpeace a few months ago to get their input on fishing policy. Nor was this the only meeting where the Government was sounding them out.

Those Greenpeace meetings are just the tip of the iceberg though.

Every three months each government department publishes a list of ministerial meetings with external groups. The latest list shows that Defra ministers met groups ranging from Be Zero Carbon to the Green Alliance, many of which are actively hostile to the Government’s own agenda. Parliamentary Under Secretary, Trudy Harrison perhaps drew the short straw when she discussed ‘the role of gender equity in delivery of the Global Biodiversity Framework’ with the ‘Indigenous Leadership Initiative, Convention on Wetlands, Women4Biodiversity, and Business for Nature, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Birdlife International’.

The same pattern is repeated across all government departments, with ministers and officials spending a huge amount of time meeting charities and pressure groups. Mel Stride at the Department of Work and Pensions has met everybody from the Joseph Rowntree Trust to the Guide Dogs. Anti-obesity campaigners discuss their views regularly with health ministers, cycling groups have access to Transport ministers.

While not all of them are overtly anti-Conservative, many of these groups are clearly pursuing agendas at odds with the Government’s own aims. Oxfam explains that it wants to ‘claw back elite power and reduces not just economic inequality, but racial, gender and colonial inequalities’, the RSPB want us to  reduce ‘the consumption of foods with the highest climate footprint’, Save the Children want the Government to ‘rescue our families, public services and economy’. They are perfectly entitled to those views of course, but it’s hard to imagine, say, Mrs Thatcher rolling out the red carpet for the CND back in the 1980s.

The Government has brought this situation on itself with its commitment to engaging with ‘stakeholders’ and endless consulting on every aspect of policy. This has made it much easier for campaigners and activists to demand to be heard, while the voting public are kept largely in the dark about how policies are actually formulated.

The problem is that virtually any group which has an interest in what government is doing – even those who are implacably opposed to it – can claim they are ‘stakeholders’. They do not have to be representative of anybody, but as long they can shout loud enough they can make a claim on ministers’ time.

These organisations clearly have every right to pursue their campaigns and advance their cause, but their views should be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism. Moreover, ministers should remember it is voters who are their key audience, not well motivated campaigners. In an age where conviction politicians have gone out of fashion, there is a real danger that policy formulation ends up contracted out to the groups who can shout the loudest and create enough of a storm on social media.

The transgender issue is a fine example of what happens when politicians listen to campaigners who purport to represent an entire community and implement radical changes without anyone daring to challenge the approach. The same has happened with the whole range of Net Zero policies where the activists have gained influence and their demands have been accepted without proper scrutiny of an opposing view.

Though some might see the proliferation of ‘third sector’ groups as proof of a vibrant civil society, the reality is that giving such organisations undue influence undermines democracy. Putting your head up above the parapet a standing for election is much harder work than whipping up a twitterstorm and then getting invited to comment on government policy. From citizens’ assemblies, to judicial review, to Just Stop Oil protestors, there are now many advocates of changing the world not by convincing enough people to vote for you, but by shouting loud enough and causing enough upset to menace those in power to meet your demands.

Ministers should recognise this danger and review all their meetings with campaign groups, not just Greenpeace.

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Fiona Bulmer is chairman of governors at a London primary school and a former Conservative councillor.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.