Tag Archives: gagging law

If you’re a small community campaign, the #gagginglaw will affect you.

Save Totley LibraryI’m annoyed that I’m starting to sound like a stuck record on this blog, but I feel the need to go back to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill again because of a potentially explosive confusion that has arisen.

Earlier today Joe Otten, a Lib Dem Sheffield Councillor, made the following claim on this blog:

No James, the Totley library campaign is not partisan, and the rules in the transparency of lobbying bill (and equally PPERA) do not apply to it. It is blatant scaremongering to suggest otherwise.

Now, I don’t claim any special knowledge of the Totley library campaign. No doubt the Labour council are claiming they have to shut it down due to central government cuts and the Lib Dems are claiming that it is solely closing because of Labour irresponsibility and opportunism. Whatever. But the argument that the bill won’t apply to such campaigns is dangerously misleading. I make no claim as to whether Otten is spinning here or has been spun to by his constituency MP Nick Clegg’s office, but either way it’s utterly fallacious.

The clue is somewhat in the name of the bill: “non-party campaigning”. “Partisan” campaigning is covered by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. The reason this bill has been introduced in the first place is that the coalition feels, in its wisdom, that non-party campaigns have been poorly regulated, and are seeking to change that.

Here are the various ways in which the bill will directly impact any small local campaign:

  • The minimum threshold that a local campaign can spend before coming under the auspices of the legislation is being cut from £10,000 to £5,000. That will include any in kind or pro bono work (such as legal advice) donated to it.
  • A new per-constituency limit of £9,480 (or, more precisely, 2% of the party spending limit, divided up on a per-constituency basis) is being introduced.
  • If your campaign is in a coalition with another organisation (for example, you are supported by a trade union), the spending limit will apply to all the organisations in the coalition in aggregate. In other words, if your coalition partner(s) spends any money at all in the constituency, your own spending limit will be reduced accordingly.
  • The regulated period will apply for 12 months before an election takes place. So, for the 2015 general election, it will commence in May 2014.
  • Once parliament has dissolved and the “short” election campaign itself has commenced, your group will have to submit weekly spending and donation reports to the Electoral Commission.

All of which is all very well, but will it apply to a non-political grassroots campaign that explicitly doesn’t support any candidate?

Well, it all depends on whether it is deemed that your campaign has a significant effect on the election or not. Fundamentally, that will all depend on how successful your campaign is. Campaigns that are deemed to not put politicians under any pressure will have, of course, little to worry about. Most campaigns however, at least aim to make an impact. And if you do, while the distinction in your mind between publicly criticising a councillor or MP for failing to support your issue and calling for people to not vote for a councillor or MP for failing to support your issue might be clear in your mind, it won’t necessarily be quite so clear in the mind of the solicitor the candidate your are criticising has paid to write you a stern and threatening legal letter. The Electoral Commission, who will be the ultimate arbiters of this legislation, have themselves repeatedly warned that it is too vague to be enforced.

There’s a bit more to it than that – especially if you are based in Scotland or Wales – but in a nutshell that’s why all small grasssroots community organisations ought to be concerned about this bill and the fact that it is being forced through parliament with so little scrutiny (the brief “pause” the government have reluctantly been forced to now observe is little more than a bit of breathing space really). If you want to know more, don’t trust me but go to the website of the National Campaign for Voluntary Organisations, who have a useful list of resources.

Of course, take everything you hear from people with a grain of salt. The nature of campaigning is that the rhetoric is often quite shrill. But if your Lib Dem or Conservative councillor tells you that it doesn’t effect you at all, they are either lying or have themselves been deeply mislead.

#Leveson and the #gagginglaw: a tale of two processes

Same-sex marriages StatementI’ve been watching the live feed of the House of Commons for the past hour, waiting for the report stage of the “transparency” bill to start. As such, I’ve watched Maria Miller’s statement on the regulation of the press and her time and again defend the long drawn out Leveson process on the basis that it leads to stronger regulation.

Is holding these two debates consecutively the government’s idea of a joke? Let’s look at the two processes: the Leveson process kicked off in May 2011 following a massive public outcry. Leveson himself reported just under 12 months ago. The plans to overhaul the system for non-party campaigning at elections were announced the day before the summer recess this year, following no outcry whatsoever, either from the public or anyone else.

The government has bent over backwards to attempt to establish cross-party and stakeholder agreement on how best to implement the Leveson proposals. When it comes to the gagging law, there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny, no white paper and the old statutory requirement of a 12 week consultation period has already been relegated to the dustbin.

Both processes have profound implications for our civic society and the public’s ability to hold their government’s to account. The only difference appears to be (in stark contrast to the ludicrous claims of the gagging law’s advocates) that newspapers are owned by millionaire businessmen. Voluntary organisations are not. If Rupert Murdoch ran 38 Degrees, you can bet this law would be getting more scrutiny than it is now.

To hear Maria Miller discuss the evils of rushing through legislation really is difficult. I hope the irony will not escape MPs when debating the bill this evening and tomorrow.

Shroud waving over the #gagginglaw

cookiemonsterNotwithstanding Chloe Smith walking away, the government have attempted to pacify the opponents to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning, Trade Union Administration and Whatever It Takes To Stop You Talking About The Real Issues Bill with a string of amendments to be debated at this afternoon’s report stage of the bill in the House of Commons. By all accounts, it hasn’t worked. I’m actually surprised by this as I would have thought they’d be able to mollify the larger charities.

The government still isn’t admitting defeat however, and the Lib Dem wing are continuing to issue dire threats about what might happen if this bill does not become law as quickly as possible. John Thurso wrote last week:

But there is nothing liberal in permitting vast fortunes to be spent in the pursuit of electoral success. If there were, we would be arguing for the repeal of the 1883 Prevention of Corruption and Illegal Practices Act which has limited candidates’ expenditure at elections for 130 years. No one is making that case: not 38 Degrees, not Friends of the Earth, not the Countryside Alliance, not Hope Not Hate.

The Bill will ensure that no millionaire’s cheque book can outgun the voices of small organisations or of election candidates with a good case to make. We cannot allow that simple principle to be blown away in a gust of hot air about “gagging”.

That is simply nonsense. For starters, Unlock Democracy – who I worked for until September – have been making precisely that case for many years, and have more recently been joined by the Electoral Reform Society. Simply omitting the organisations which campaigning on this issue because they are inconvenient does not make a case true.

And it is simply not true that a single millionaire will be prevented from buying the political process if that is what they wish to do so. The government has repeatedly refused to legislate for a cap on donations, and however draconian this bill is on campaigning, it doesn’t include a cap on donations to non party campaigns. There is nothing whatsoever to prevent a donor from making donations of £400,000 to a dozen different organisations, all of whom would be free to campaign up to the spending limit as long as they did not work in concert.

Sound fanciful? Possibly, but then far too much of this debate has focused on hypothetical scenarios, so why not raise this one. David Boyle goes further than John Thurso, by bringing up the US Koch Brothers and their campaigning techniques:

So you might reasonably ask why the UK should have legislation about electoral activity by non-candidates at all. The answer is summed up in one word: Koch.

The reason why this is so important is because of the Koch Brothers and their activities funding ultra-conservative election support in the USA, and those like them.

They set up lobby groups and non-profits to intervene, most of them well below the radar – but tax returns show that they spent $230 million in local interventions in the USA in the year before the last presidential election, and that was just through one of their organisations.

Look at the government shut-down, the blinkered oppositionism that has degraded American politics at federal level. That isn’t just about the Koch brothers, but we don’t want it here – we don’t want an open door to every oligarch who thinks they can intervene in our elections.

The tl;dr version of that quote is: “if you don’t support this bill then you support oligarchs shutting down the government!” It’s a nice bit of propaganda, but once again it omits certain inconvenient truths. Specifically, we already have our UK Koch Brothers. The difference is that, because they are free to fund parties directly, they opt for that instead.

The Stuart Wheelers, Michael Ashcrofts and, yes, James Palumbos of this world know that you are far better off putting your money into parties either directly or influencing governments by establishing think tanks and setting the political agenda that way. In terms of getting bang out of their buck, they would be insane to do otherwise.

So the real question is, why are the Liberal Democrats shroud waving about this non-issue while doing nothing whatsoever to make the case for taking the big money out of the UK political system where it is actually being spent?

Image credit: Unlock Democracy.