Remind me how the gagging law will prevent a UK “Koch Brothers” again?

UKIP Billboard from 2004One of the common arguments by the supporters of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is that it will prevent the UK equivalent of the Koch Brothers from being able to buy the political process for their own nefarious ends.

So it is with good timing that Paul Sykes has re-emerged, promising to do “whatever it takes” to get UKIP to become the largest UK political party in the European Parliament after the elections next year.

Paul Sykes, for those with short memories, was a Conservative donor who switched sides in the early noughties. The billboard campaign he funded in 2004 had a direct effect on the result, in which UKIP leapt from 3 MEPs to 12. Even without his intervention, it was looking distinctly possible that UKIP could become the largest party in 2014, with the Tories’ popularity being dented due to being in government, and the BNP collapsing. Now it is looking like a very real prospect indeed.

This sort of intervention by a Eurosceptic millionaire is hardly a new thing in British politics; it’s been an ongoing saga since the Maastricht debate shot Europe up the political agenda 20 years ago. And while it’s true that they have occasionally dipped their toes into non-party campaigning with causes such as the disastrous (in terms of its impact compared to the amount of money that was reportedly spent on it), they have predominantly sought to exert their influence via political parties rather than pressure groups.

All of which makes shroud-waving about what might happen when “Koch UK land here” seem rather odd; their tanks are already on our lawn. The policy solution is of course to limit what individual’s can donate to political parties, an issue which the coalition paid lip service to but have now walked away from even after we saw progress made on alternative, revenue-neutral funding mechanisms and the Labour Party shifted ground significantly in terms of their own trade union-led opposition to the idea.

Gratifyingly the government have now – for a short period at least – agreed to pause the legislative process, to allow more time for ministers to listen to the concerns of civic society organisations. We can thank organisations such as 38 Degrees for helping to win that respite. Hopefully it will lead to meaningful engagement and at least some of the scrutiny that the bill should have got before being read in parliament. Optimistically, it might even lead to a more robust legislative framework to regulate the role third parties can play in elections. But be under no illusion whatsoever that it will do a thing to remove the dominance millionaires have over the UK political system.


  1. Must say I’ve now had 3 glossy leaflets through my door from 38 degrees full of lies about Nick Clegg. They are acting like the PAC here, and any genuine concerns over the bill are likely to be drowned out by them.

      1. You still haven’t answered my question. If you’re referring to political action committees, there’s more than one.

        And if the “lies” you are referring to are that the gagging law will massively curtail free speech, I’m afraid to say that it will.

        Why not stick them up on so we can independently verify your allegations?

  2. Joe,

    a) you described our leaflet as containing “lies” – would you like to specify what these lies are?

    b) when you describe us as “the pac”, what do you mean? Do you mean you would like to see these leaflets subjected to spending restrictions? That’d be quite revealing…

  3. Joe, that leaflet has the sort of rhetorical flourish that I take for granted when it comes to Lib Dem Focus leaflets, but I would hardly call it “lying”. Accusing people of that does sound like dodgy grounds for criticism coming from the Liberal Democrats given their own checkered past. Glass houses and stones, maybe?

    (Edited because I pressed submit too early.)

  4. Excuse me if I don’t spend all day on the net.

    So the lies in this leaflet are:
    1. Nick Clegg wants to shut you up
    2. Forever
    3. gagging effect on ordinary people
    4. and charities

    (“and campaigns” is untrue, but you can have that as rhetorical flourish)

    5. Leave big money lobbyists untouched (though I agree the register should go further)

    6. Being rushed through (there is a pause, though it may have been “rhetorical flourish” at the time of printing.)

    The previous leaflet, which I have around here somewhere specifically accused Nick of seeking to gag the “save Totley library” campaign, which is particularly ludicrous as it is a campaign that he is publicly supporting against a decision of the Labour council.

  5. That’s not really substantiation, Joe – you’re just quoting from directly the leaflet. Substantiation would involve you actually demonstrating how the things you quote are “lies”. Still waiting…

  6. David, I refer you to the text of the bill.

    And, frankly, these are absurd things to say of a Liberal Democrat. People who want to do those things just don’t join our party. There is no earthly reason they would.

  7. Call me old fashioned, Joe, but I think if you’re going to accuse an organisation of “lies”, you should be willing to either properly substantiate the accusation or to apologise!

    I’m willing to believe you about why people join the Lib Dems. Like most people, I’ve never joined a political party myself – though I would happily call myself a “liberal” and a “democrat” – but I accept that many of those who do, do so with noble motives.

    But the motivation of people for joining the lib dems is not really the point – the issue is what the legislation will do. 38 Degrees, along with the Commission on Civil Society, pretty every relevant parliamentary committee, and hundreds of other campaign groups, charities and voluntary organisations, are worried that the gagging law will have a severe impact on freedom of speech and significantly undermine civil society’s contribution to democracy.

    Many members of the liberal democrats are, thankfully, taking these concerns seriously. Sadly Nick Clegg doesn’t seem to be one of them as yet. Overall the Lib Dems are still pushing this deeply illiberal and antidemocratic law. Until Clegg does start to listen, of course 38 Degrees members are going to campaign vigorously to try to change his mind.

    I hope that you can yourself move beyond insults and take these concerns seriously. I hope also that you can accept that campaigning to raise these concerns, in the constituency of one of the key people pushing this legislation, is a legitimate activity in a democracy. If you haven’t already, reading the 1st report of the Commission on Civil Society might be a good place to start:

  8. The bill has been paused precisely to give more time to explore legitimate concerns over whether the wording will have the intended effect or some wider effect.

    Meanwhile the (yes, legitimate) campaign by 38 degrees is seeking to bury those concerns by concentrating on smears against the DPM, that seem to my mind more intended to influence the general election than the lobbying bill. Which is a legitimate thing to do, and will remain so.

    This is the irony. 38 degrees could quite legally run the same campaign as it is doing now in the month before the general election, with the lobbying bill having been passed as it is, only by doing so it would prove itself to be lying. And it may not even have reached the registration threshold, which might reveal to the voting public who is bankrolling the smear campaign.

  9. Whether Clegg supports the save Totley library campaign or not, the fact remains that this new law will leave it far more vulnerable. Its minimum reporting threshold will be halved; the amount it can spend will be reduced. Any relationship with an organisation it that could be construed to be in a coalition with (a trade union for example), will have its spending considered jointly. And their opponents will have both the means and the incentive to attempt to silence the campaign thanks to the complicated new law that the Electoral Commission itself is warning it might not be able to enforce.

    As a local councillor in the area, I really think it’s your responsibility to better inform yourself about the implications of the bill rather than just going along with the assurances and platitudes you are no doubt getting from Clegg’s office.

    As for 38 Degrees, I am hardly their greatest fan, but to suggest they are undermining the campaign for reform through their strong arm tactics is, to put it politely, to misunderstand how advocacy campaigns and negotiations work. Of course they (and others) have taken a hard line on this; if they hadn’t then there is precisely zero chance that the government would now be taking the issue seriously and are sitting round the negotiating table. This is after refusing to speak to anyone for weeks. You seem to think that if we just asked nicely it would all fall on our laps. Life doesn’t work like that; if Clegg himself better understood that, the Lib Dems would probably be in a healthier state than they are right now.

    The Save Totley Library campaign and others should be in no doubt about this: you are doing them no favours by defending this bill and the farcical shotgun legislative process that your party is using to force it through.

  10. 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.

    And, frankly, thought this is off the point, it would be insanely bad PR for anybody to try to shut it down, and the campaign would almost certainly redouble their efforts as a result, being British and all that.

    Though I suppose it is possible some campaigns will shut themselves down because they believe 38 Degrees lies. A tragic chilling effect on democracy there.

    1. It’s obvious from your comments that you haven’t read the bill, haven’t read the explanatory notes and haven’t read any of the legal advice.

      The idea that a campaign only counts if it is partisan is ludicrous. If it is partisan, it counts as party campaigning. Legislation on third party campaigning was *never* designed to cover that. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

      I worry about groups such as the Save Totley Library if they are getting fact-free reassurances from credulous individuals in Lib Dem constituencies. If this legislation is passed as drafted, they won’t know what’s hit them.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.