I just got back from a public meeting with my MP John Leech, about the Lobbying Bill (the “gagging law” that is going through parliament at a breakneck pace right now.
Firstly, it’s great to see the UK’s democracy in action, in person. You can never get the full picture of how the country works through the lens of the media. It’s great that John sacrificed his Saturday night to come and see us and great that enough people came out that we filled the moderately-sized Chorlton Central Church.
There were some excellent points made and the bill certainly makes more sense to me now. Sadly, it was not really a discussion and there was no kind of outcome to speak of. There was quite a lot of ignorance and repeating the same thing over and over, both from John and from members of the public who repeated previous questions (and non-questions) again and again, rewording them slightly each time.
The bill is in 3 sections. The main criticism of part 1 is that it does nothing to address party donations, does nothing to counter the enourmous power wielded by Conservative party donors such as Lord Ashcroft, and nothing to counter the huge amount of political campaigning done by the tabloid press. John accepted that completely, although his only constructive point was that the Liberal Democrats continue to campaign on these sorts of things in some way (I forget exactly the details).
Section 1 of the bill introduces a statutory register of lobbying companies. This government already “proactively” (I’m not sure if that means that they could stop whenever they want to) releases quarterly details of which lobbyists MPs have been taken out to dinner by. The register would allow us to find out who these lobbyists are actually working for, which seems pretty crucial information.
Plenty of people felt the need throughout the evening to make the same points about the fact the bill doesn’t address media lobbying and political party donations, although with no concrete suggestions of things they would like John to do about this in the future. It’s a fair point, for something which is being referred to by the government themselves as the Lobbying Bill, but is also being reasonable when he points out that no bill is perfect, and the fact this bill doesn’t fix everything is no reason to throw it out, *on its own*.
Section 3 of the bill didn’t get much time, which is a shame because it seems quite important. Life is hard for trade unions, which it must be if the Coalition are going to continue to shaft almost every public sector worker throughout their term. Section 3 apparently makes life easier by tightening the already tight regulations on the accuracy of union membership records? But several union members pointed out that they already spent lots of effort on ensuring address etc. are up to date because they can be prosecuted over the tiniest discrepancy if not. Again, John didn’t acknowledge their points that this is a problem for them, and the union spokespeople didn’t propose anything they would like him to do, other than oppose this bill which is not in itself going to help them much.
Section 2 of the bill is the big boy that all of the charities who organised the event are concerned about. It imposes limits on how much an organisation campaigning for or against a specific party or candidate can spend in each constituency, but several lawyers, and the Electoral Commission, have warned that it’s unclear who will be covered by the law and who won’t. John began by explaining that the activities of almost all the charities who attended were not covered under this limit at all, and are in fact prohibited from being party political by charity law. Since the second hearing of the bill, the rules for what does and doesn’t fall under the limits are the same as in PPERA (2000), which has caused no trouble at all for charities and campaign groups in the 2005 and 2010 elections.
This was the biggest disagreement of the night, I think. While John’s point is great on its own, he gave no reason why we should ignore the advice of the lawyers and of the Electoral Commission who say that the law is still ambiguous. If the law is unchanged since PPERA (2000), then their concerns must be equally valid with the law as it stands today. Scrapping the Lobbying Bill won’t fix that, of course, but either way we can’t ignore these concerns. The concerned parties have set up a commission to do the consultation on the Lobbying Bill that the Government failed to do, and I hope that whatever happens with this bill, any problems found with the law today are fixed.
John stated again and again that there would not be any problems for charities in the future. Now that I look back though, I realise that he was talking about *only* charities. Since they are prevented by law from political activity already, I’m sure he’s right. But that doesn’t make life any easier for campaign groups, and this is where the ambiguity lies. He even picked up a flyer produced by 38 Degrees to promote the meeting as something that might fall under the new law.
At the same time, it’s a failure of 38 Degrees to not mention PPERA (2000) in their campaigning over the issue and to make it clear that the definitions in the law have not changed, only the financial limits. I think it was only in an amendment of the bill that this became true, so perhaps that’s understandable. If I’m understanding things correctly John is also correct to say that 38 Degrees have muddied the issue by saying that charities as well as campaign groups need to be concerned about the bill. They are hardly the only people saying that, though.
There were many other points made over the course of the evening. I didn’t make notes of anything so I’ve not got them all here. John made it clear that the bill was badly drafted in its original form, but that he was happy with its state by the time of the 3rd reading. He reminded everyone that lobbying is not an inherently dirty thing, and is not a clearly-defined one either. Where does personal lobbying end and corporate lobbying start? He also gave an example of one (and there seemed to be only one) non-theoretical positive effect the that the act would have, which is to greatly reduce the amount of money the campaign group “Young Britains,” who are apparently a Conservative-funded campaign group who happen to exclusively support Conservative candidates, can spend on lobbying in a single constituency.
He ignored some of the concrete examples of negative effects that were raised. A spokesperson from HOPE Against Hate pointed out that their campaigning against the fascist BNP would be hugely limited in the next election to just 2% of what the BNP would be permitted spend. John spoke out against the BNP in response, and entered into the hypothetical situation of a counter organisation to HOPE Against Hate who, if this law was not passed, would continue to be able to spend up to almost £800k in a single constituency campaining in favour of the BNP, but would be limited to £10k if the law was passed. Which is true, but John would have done well to acknowledge the reality of the situation which is that there is no huge pro-fascist organisation at present, but the good work HOPE Against Hate have been doing is going to be hugely impacted at the next election. Instead, he ignored the direct question. It seems to me this bill is more about solving theoretical problems than real ones.
John pointed out that he’s had very few people contact him about the bill who weren’t directed via 38 Degrees, and nobody who spoke about against section 1 or 3 of the bill at all. He also made very little of the fact that the bill had no consultation, was published on the last day of Parliament before the summer reccess, and had its first debate on the first day back after the summer recess.
At no point did he admit that the bill should not have been rushed. At no point did he acknowledge that there should have been a consultation. The reason for the rush was apparently so that it can cover the May 2014 European elections … but if PPERA does much the same thing, why is this bill so urgent?
I am going to go and take a moment to acknowledge how great it is for the UK that campaign spending is limited at all. There are holes that big money interests get through, but big money will always find its way through a hole somewhere, because there is always a grey area and there is almost no limit on what you can do if you have a huge amount of money. And that is the real problem in the world.
1. It seems Lord Ashcroft’s money is already out of the picture