The government are attacking civil society and free speech (and this blog)

15th August, 2013 12:04 pm

The government’s hastily drafted “Lobbying and Transparency” Bill was published just before recess. Due to entirely political considerations, the bill is being rushed through the Commons as soon as MPs return in September.

Whilst much of the focus so far has been on the lobbying part of the bill (which arguably makes the industry less transparent) and the nakedly, crassly political attack on the unions – a far more chilling effect is hidden within the bill.

It’s an outright attack on Civil Society and free speech. And it could mean every majority charity, community group and campaigning organisation in the country could be restricted in how they campaign.

Essentially, any campaigning that takes place in an election year – which costs more than £32,000 and is considered “political” – will be subject to strict spending limits, increased bureaucracy (including submitting weekly accounts) and – potentially – being forced to secure permission from a political party to be allowed to run a campaign if it is deemed to be too close in it’s aims to a policy advocated by that party. And what is political is broadly defined as any attempt to engage with the policy of any political party, have a view on any aspect of any policy of any party or attempt – in any way – to influence the policy of any party.

So that’s the actions of pretty much every major charity of the country restricted for starters.

This is the politics of the repressive regime. This is deeply illiberal. This is not meant to be how we do things in Britain.

Worse – staff time spent campaigning will count towards the spending limit for all charity and third sector groups (a restriction that doesn’t apply to political parties). That means a large civil society group shoots through the spending limits imposed on them with ease, effectively meaning they’d need to grind to a halt and stop having a view on the charitable aims they exist to serve.

The farcical nature of this legislation can also be seen in how it would affect, for example, this blog. As we write predominantly about the politics of the Labour Party, and are supportive (but not uncritical) of the party, if we spend over £32,000 during election year, we would need – under the law – to ask the permission of the Labour Party to continue operating. Why’s that? Because above that level we’d be considered, under this new legislation, as part of the Labour Party’s election spending. The same principle would also apply to the likes of ConservativeHome and LibDemVoice too.

We only have one member of staff (me) but add on server costs and other necessities for maintaining a blog of LabourList’s size and we’d cross that threshold with ease.

But if the government honestly think they can force me to go and ask permission from Ed Miliband to carry on blogging in election year – or for other bloggers to do likewise – they can get lost. I’d rather break electoral law and get arrested than surrender the independence of this blog, thank you very much.

This whole bill is a brutal attack on free speech and the ability of any group that isn’t a political party to campaign. It utterly destroys any argument that Cameron truly wants to see a Big Society – and it’ll crush those who want to see a real political debate about issues that matter at election time.

This bill is a mess. It needs to be stopped, starting with the Labour Party standing alongside Civil Society to defend free speech.

Update: The Cabinet Office have been in touch with LabourList today in response to this post. A Cabinet Office spokesperson said:

“The intention of the Bill is to bring greater transparency where third parties campaign in a way which supports a particular political party or its candidates, by requiring expenditure on those campaigns to be fully recorded and disclosed. This Bill does not include campaigning by third parties – charities or other organisations – that are not intended to promote the electoral success of any particular party. So a third party campaigning only on policy issues would be exempt.”

Except LabourList – as well as numerous other blogs, charities and campaigning groups – have received legal advice that argues this legislation will do exactly what I spelled out above. Furthermore, the Labour front bench appear to take the same view of the legislation that I do, based on the responses I have received publicly online (and in person) from senior Labour figures. In addition, the Electoral Commission’s position appears to be different to that of the Cabinet Office.

The Cabinet office are arguing that I’m wrong and that there’s nothing to see here – the legal advice I’ve received says otherwise.

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