One hundred years ago the NFU did something no other organisation in Britain had ever done. On 30th July 1913 it appointed Britain’s first official ‘parliamentary lobbyist’.
His name was Charles Weller Kent and he was to mark the beginning of professional lobbying in the UK.
Kent’s appointment was ‘somewhat original’ according to Dr Conor McGrath, a former lobbyist and independent scholar who researched Mr Kent. “No-one before him had ever worked explicitly as a parliamentary lobbyist,” he said.
By the time of his appointment the NFU, then five-years-old, had already started to make a name for itself.
“Very few matters of agricultural policy were dealt with without their involvement,” said Dr McGrath, “so much so, that people referred to the NFU’s executive as the ‘farmers' Parliament’.”
The organisation was developing unusual and innovative lobbying methods too, including drafting bills (virtually unheard of then), publishing its own newspaper called the Mark Lane Express and exploring controversial ideas, including the establishment of its own political party. In comparison to other similar interest groups of today, the NFU’s lobbying strategies were relatively sophisticated, said Dr McGrath.
Despite this, the organisation’s influence on policy was still quite low, so in order to improve it was decided to employ a dedicated lobbyist. An anonymous ad was placed in The Times, asking for ‘a gentleman having knowledge of Parliamentary procedure and journalism’. Mr Kent, then a barrister and ex parliamentary correspondent to The Times, took on the part-time role for 13 guineas a quarter – equivalent to £20,000 a year today). He then immediately told his new employer not to expect much progress for a year as the government was very busy with a life and death struggle to keep itself in office.
Nevertheless, Mr Kent and the NFU set to work, publishing an agricultural manifesto of 15 key policy issues. Only a few other organisations had ever produced its own manifesto, placing the NFU at the forefront of this sort of lobbying tool.
Among the policy points, the manifesto called for action on trespassing laws and agricultural holdings, reform of taxation on agricultural land, uniformed weights and measurements, increased funding for rural roads, and a legal definition of beer.
Mr Kent used the manifesto to hold meetings with MPs and kept NFU members up to date through a regular column in the Mark Lane Express. He used the paper to encouraged farmers to write to MPs on specific issues, and invited them to contact him with their concerns and also their views of different MPs.
This engagement was unusual at the time and more sophisticated grassroots lobbying than is often seen now, said Dr McGrath. “Mr Kent was doing things that are now recognised as part of a professional lobbyist’s job, but which at the time were pretty new.”
For all his forward thinking though, Mr Kent’s level of influence is unclear, said Dr McGrath. There are instances – the 1914 Hops Bill and the Agricultural Holdings Bill – where changes were made following his grassroots action and meetings with MPs. But otherwise there is scant evidence to really know his impact.
In lobbying history Mr Kent himself is also little known. Two of his three years in the role coincided with the First World War and the creation of the Labour Party, so for many NFU members and leaders now was not the time to raise their issues.
“If Kent had been appointed in 1908 when the NFU was formed, he probably would have been more influential and more well-known,” said Dr McGrath.
What we do know however, is that Britain’s first official Parliamentary lobbyist and the early NFU itself- developed methods which are now part and parcel of professional lobbying 100 years later.
Copy: Jez Fredenburgh for the NFU's award-winning British Farmer and Grower magazine