So the pot has addressed the kettle again. Tom Brake and Chloe Smith have accused 38 Degrees of being either alarmist or scaremongering about the effects of Part 2 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. Perhaps they would like to add the famously hysterical Electoral Commission to their list of doom-mongers, as they have also expressed serious concerns.
Mr Brake and Ms Smith claim that Part 2 will save the UK from unaccountable big-spending American-style Super-PACs. No alarmism there, then – especially when the only thing preventing this horror is that non-party spending is already limited to about 5% of what parties can spend.
So why slash this to just 2%, while adding many more activities into the mix and deliberately increasing red tape for the lowest spenders – all without any consultation with those affected or the Commission? There is no clear answer anywhere in the bill documents, so it’s not surprising people are suspicious.
Further, Part 2 restricts campaigners in ways that parties would never stomach for themselves. For example, it curtails targeting, the keystone of party election wins and losses for decades. It also includes staff costs in the limit, which most parties would, apparently, find too difficult.
Leaving fairness and proper process aside, Part 2 lacks clarity. Grappling with it is like wrestling an eel – difficult, slippery and ultimately unproductive. As with the current rules, campaigns on issues like housing, abortion, and the NHS, will be covered where they dare to raise voter awareness on issues that some parties or candidates support, and some don’t, even if they name no parties or candidates.
However, it’s much harder to work out what is definitely not covered, as the Commission has pointed out. This makes for poor regulatory law, particularly when there are criminal sanctions attached. The more questions people ask, the more grey areas and unintended consequences emerge. Some of these threaten the ability of groups to campaign at all.
With the number of concerns raised by a wide range of groups, the government should have the courtesy to listen rather than dismiss, and allay these worries with amendments. Then, maybe, it would be easier to believe that its intentions are honourable.
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* Ros Baston is a specialist political and election solicitor. Previously she was Lead Adviser (Party and Election Finance) at the Electoral Commission. http://bastonlegal.com/. She has received no payment from 38 Degrees for writing this article.