Debate Magazine

Lobbying Bill is an Attack on Democracy

Posted on the 22 November 2013 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway

v4ceI was privileged to be part of a Voice 4 Change England panel discussing the Lobbying and Immigration Bills along with Conservative former Boris Johnson adviser Kulveer RangerLabour shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn and my old anti-racist movement colleague Claudia Webbe, a Labour councillor.

I have written a few blog pieces on immigration so will limit this article to the Lobbying Bill. This Bill proposes to clamp down even further on the ability of charities and trades unions to ‘campaign’ during an election.

The fundamental flaw running through the Bill like a stick of rock is the assumption that campaigning on issues could constitute “preferment” for individual candidates or parties. This is nonsense; charities do not tell voters who they should vote for, they raise concerns in their area of expertise and leave it up to the public to make up their own minds.

Even Labour-affiliated trades unions rarely explicitly call for a Labour vote during the election campaign. If they want to claim, for instance, that Government ministers are eroding workers rights that might imply they prefer Labour in power but generally they are careful to avoid saying this explicitly. And, in a free society, why shouldn’t they? Private businessmen are free to take out full page adverts during an election, so why prevent others also doing so if their members wish. 

The Government assumption is that this somehow corrupts the election but that is, frankly, utter rubbish. It is called democratic debate. Interest groups are perfectly entitled to express an opinion whether one agrees with their points or not. Ultimately a general election campaign is all about debate and politicians do not have a monopoly on it. Which MPs end up getting elected should be of secondary importance to having a nationwide conversation about the issues ordinary people face.

Trades unions proportionally represent members who are at the sharp end of Government policies, those on low wages. Charities help many thousands of people, providing help that is often not available from the States or they are picking up the pieces of Government policies. They have a valuable contribution to make and should not be silenced during an election.

Charities are, almost without exception, extremely careful about what they say already. The voluntary sector are already governed by a very strict regime as a result of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA), which treats volunteers as if they were FTSE100 company legal or compliance experts and has created fear in campaigners as to whether or not they fall under this law and therefore cannot raise their voice. Under the new Bill even supporters of charities could be cited as having carried out ‘lobbying’ in the interests of a charity.

PPERA was a dogs dinner that went too far in neutering public debate and, now that has been digested, we are witnessing the poop of the current Bill emerging from the other end. If we want a Big Society, as opposed to Big Brother, let us hear from the groups that are supposed to deliver it.

Many politicians entered politics because of involvement in interest groups so they should not be killing the goose that laid the rotten eggs. The reason for this Bill is quite simple; it is about the Tory Right’s paranoia that charities are somehow agents of the Left. If they spent more time getting reacquainted with charities work they would realize the groups are mostly not radicals but concerned individuals doing a public duty that is often filling an unmet need. As a result, the Government are making enemies of the most active citizens in the country.

The heavy hand of the Bill towards charities, extending the PPERA further, is compounded by the light touch provisions in Part 1 of the Bill addressing lobbyists of private firms. In reality some of the issues charities wish to campaign on are the consequence of regressive policies implemented by politicians listening to lobbyists who fund their party. It is not charities spending money in constituencies that is a problem, it is the problems experienced by constituents. Conservative ministers have the cheek to call this a ‘transparency bill’ but all that is transparent is ministers’ desire not to be forced into transparency through public debate.

Politics already too narrow and excluding without making it even less appealing by removing alternatives voices from the stage during elections. Knocking charities out of the ring means they can’t question false claims, broken promises or misleading manifestos. It is a Liars Charter. 

The Bill means more interest groups will have to go direct to politicians to gain influence rather than go direct to the electorate. If politicians want the public to listen to them the trust needs to be earned not enforced by a proposed law that seeks to impose politicians’ command and control over elections. There is far more need for a Bill that ensures politicians tell the truth.

Under this Bill an evangelical Christian businessman can take out full page newspaper adverts advocating a pro-life position but pro-choice charities cannot. A private organisation can do the same can spend cash arguing that Britain should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights but Liberty cannot put the case for staying in. 

Indeed it is possible to interpret the Bill as covering anything that any politician may have an opinion over. Just because Labour have highlighted the growth of foodbanks and as indicator of the consequences of economic policy does not mean charities that deliver foodbanks are being pro-Labour if they say how appalling it is that so many foodbanks are feeding thousands of starving Britons. 

Worse, the Bill seeks to ensure that strict limits on charity spending in elections – as low as £5,000 – are also extended to coalitions of organisations. In other words that cash limit applies to the collective. The No2ID campaign against Labour’s ID cards before the last election – which many Lib Dems supported – would be outlawed under this Bill. So to is the right to assemble restricted. Of course everyone’s right to attend meetings and rallies is unchanged but the ability of charities to organize that assembly would be dramatically curtailed by falling within the spending curbs. 

Britain will be forced to rely entirely on the media to uphold independent scrutiny of politicians at election time despite each newspaper holding its’ own political agendas and declaring their support for particular parties. Stifling public debate by shackling charities may shine the spotlight exclusively on politicians but voters want to hear from a wide variety of sources before making their minds up. 

Politics more than voting, it is about debate whether or not people vote. This authoritarian and illiberal Bill needs to be opposed for the sake of democracy. 

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

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