A FRIEND of mine works in public affairs – helping charities get their messages across to politicians; a tiny voice in a UK lobbying industry worth an estimated £7.5 billion a year – the second biggest in the world. Public affairs agencies try to shape the public agenda in their client’s interests; setting up meetings and briefings on behalf of their clients with government officials. Most of this is hidden from public view; lobbyists only need to declare their clients if they contact a government minister; lobbying anyone else in government or lobbying by corporations themselves goes unreported.

But democracy only works when those making decisions (voters or elected politicians) base them on reliable information. That’s why the Brexit referendum was so flawed. Campaigns were based almost entirely on lies, conjecture, scaremongering and (as became subsequently apparent) foreign governments’ manipulation of social media in an attempt to influence the outcome.

Lobbying further obfuscates the political mix. Those with deepest pockets (energy industries, particularly those with fracking interests, spend millions of pounds each year) purchase influence and effectively set much of the political agenda, talking to politicians and their advisers behind closed doors. Democracy as we know it is groaning under the strain as decisions are made on the basis of partisan and partial information.

Charities are on the back foot. Limited by law as to how involved they can be in the political process, they often have to stand by and watch client groups or environmental concerns disadvantaged, their voices drowned out by a well-funded and largely unregulated industrial cacophony whose interest is solely to preserve profits and shareholders bottom line.

I once worked for a UK charity that provided care for children who ran away from home; some on the streets as young as seven. We realised that if local authorities were obliged to report the numbers of child runaways in their area, they would, under existing safeguarding legislation, also be required to provide proper support and help for them. So we promoted a debate in parliament, asked our supporters to sign a petition and write letters of support to their MPs to advocate for a change in the law. We succeeded; the law was changed; local authorities became accountable and although it didn’t make the problem go away, monitoring numbers and being obliged to provide support unlocked local authority funds to help children most at risk of trafficking, sexual exploitation and exposure to drugs and crime. Most importantly, because the information was now public, the charity was able to hold them to account.

Political involvement by charities is now much more restricted whereas businesses continue to influence unfettered. Brexit has exposed our country’s shambolic political decision-making process. But it’s just the tip of an iceberg of misinformation, self-interest and manipulation on an industrial scale that has struck and sinking what we used to call ‘democracy’.