The Bill intended to regulate lobbying is now completing its Commons phase and will return to the Lords on October 22nd. As has been widely pointed out this Bill does little to control business lobbying but will prevent Britain’s voluntary sector from campaigning effectively during the year before an election.
What has yet to be made clear is just how deep a hole the Liberal Democrats are digging for themselves. They are universally seen by campaigning organisations as being the driving force behind Part 2 of the Bill – the part that gags campaigners in an election. This is attributed to Nick Clegg’s fear of a massive social networking campaign in his constituency.
This Bill is, in effect, a resurrection of the Combination Acts from the dark and repressive days of the 18th Century. It will prevent me from doing things with others during an election that I am permitted to do on my own. The Combination Acts were used to prevent individuals arguing together with others for better pay and conditions in the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution.
This Bill will require campaigning organisations to register with the Electoral Commission if they intend to campaign during an election. If this sounds a bit Putin like that’s because it is. Severe restrictions on what campaigning organisations can do for the twelve months before an election will be imposed along with hugely burdensome reporting conditions.
If the Electoral Commission determines that an organisation’s activities were intended to influence the outcome of the election it will be liable to criminal prosecution. Not surprisingly the Electoral Commission is not keen on this role.
Since the point of campaigning is to influence what politicians think and elections are when they think hardest, this is tantamount to banning campaigning. It would effectively mean organisations could not campaign on HS2, Third Airports, badgers, climate change and a host of other controversial environmental issues.
Since the Bill was published there has been a barrage of soft words from Ministers claiming these fears are exaggerated. So far, the campaigning organisations, wise in the way governments actually work, have not been convinced.
Hence the problem for the Liberal Democrats. Campaigning organisations are full of people who have rejected party politics precisely because they are impatient with and frustrated by the tribalism of left-right politics. This has made them a natural constituency for the Lib-Dems. The leadership of these groups are followed by a far greater proportion of the electorate than the 47,000 Lib-Dems following Nick Clegg.
It is not easy to see the political advantage of alienating such a large group of engaged, experienced and vocal people who lean your way politically. There is no chance that they will simply roll over if this legislation passes. They will use every opportunity to mount legal challenges to the Bill. There is also a very good chance that the Act ( if passed ) will become a running sore during the election itself as large numbers of campaigners invite prosecution for speaking out.
Furthermore, this is a gift to Labour. They opposed the Bill at second reading in the Commons. They have now been presented with a golden opportunity to steal a key constituency from the Lib-Dems by simply making a commitment to repeal Part 2 of the Bill.
The defensive line being run by Ministers is that they will amend the Bill to avoid any ‘misunderstanding’ of their intentions. They are promising to restore the wording of the existing legislation governing third party activities during elections. But if that were really the case there would be no point in this part of the Bill at all so they could take the advice of Parliament’s leading constitutional authority, Graham Allen, and simply drop Part 2.
They won’t. People in holes rarely stop digging. The likelihood therefore is that the Lib-Dems will remain on the hook on which they have so spectacularly skewered themselves. This may not worry others over much, but the success of a fundamental attack on our democratic rights by a party supposedly committed to liberty should
October 7th 2013