— TSEofPB (@TSEofPB) August 23, 2013
This Big Brother Bill Belongs to Zimbabwe Not Britain
Hasty legislation usually makes for the lousy legislation. But for lousy and cynical legislation, look no further than the government’s ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill’. It appears to be the latest sinister stunt from a Conservative Party looking to boost its chances in the run-up to the general election by effectively clamping down on dissenting views.
Under this legislation the staff time, office costs and expenditures of thousands of blogs, think tanks, charities and campaigners are all set to be heavily capped in the year before the May 2015 general election. What’s worse is that the regulation of independent organisations will not only come from the state, but even from the political parties themselves.
The Spectator’s Sebastian Payne explains that political blogs that spend more than is permissible would require the permission of political parties. ‘This new regime, unless clearly defined in the bill, could affect political blogs. Not necessarily due to their funding, but because some bloggers write primarily about the ongoings of a particular party, which could be classed as campaigning. This would give Ed Miliband the power to shut down LabourList, or David Cameron to Conservative Home, if he took a dislike to their coverage.’
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations warns that charities campaigning seeking to change views and attitudes risks being classified as electioneering. ‘This means that a charity that published campaigning material on an issue such as housing or healthcare could be considered to be engaging in political campaigning if it shares a point of view with one party but not another, even if its intention was just to inform the public, and even if it did not even mention the election.’
Respected anti-fascist campaigners Hope Not Hate have highlighted how they will be legally limited to spending just 2% of what the British National Party is able to spend in the year before the last general election under these new proposals. They describe it as ‘nothing more than a Gagging Bill, limiting democracy, political involvement and criticism. At a time when trust in political parties and politicians is at an all-time low we need to increase involvement and participation in the democratic process rather than limiting it.’
Meanwhile the TUC have calculated that to hold their traditional annual Congress in the year before an election would become a criminal offence due to the expenditure involved. Their General Secretary Frances O’Grady damned the bill as “an outrageous attack on freedom of speech worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship”
So charities, anti-racist organisations, trade unions and political blogs stand to be hit hard by the bill, while decaying political parties including the BNP will be its beneficiaries.
Presumably such a Bill must well and truly cover lobbyists? Seasoned lobbyist and former head of Public Affairs at Bell Pottinger Peter Bingle says no ‘Only a tiny percentage of the so-called lobbying industry will be covered by the bill, and in-house lobbyists are excluded. This is bizarre, as most lobbying of ministers, special advisers and officials is done by employees of corporations and trade associations and not by public affairs consultants. I will not be covered by the bill as it is drafted and nor will most of the major players in the public affairs consultancy world.’
Guido Fawkes agrees adding that ‘a huge amount of the type of lobbying that needs most scrutiny has been let off entirely’.
Politics simply should not be the sole property of political parties. Thoughtful Conservative MP Douglas Carswell asks, ‘If 38 Degrees or the Taxpayers’ Alliance want to get stuck in during an election campaign, why shouldn’t they? What possible reason can there be to regulate the political engagement of institutions in a free society?’
It is a sad reflection on David Cameron, who once described himself as ‘a liberal Conservative’, that his government seems intent on curtailing the campaigning freedoms of others to buttress support. He refuses to admit how many Conservative members have been lost under his watch yet wants to curtail thriving civic campaigning organisations far bigger than his own. His desperate response through this Bill owes more to Zimbabwe than Britain.
For Liberal Democrat MPs to back such Big Brother measures would surely mark a new chapter in the party’s departure from liberal values. It speaks volumes about Nick Clegg’s leadership that it cannot be ruled out. Chloe Smith is the government minister responsible for this Big Brother bill’s speedy passage. Email her at email@example.com to tell her what you think. While you can.