It was heartening to see an increased number of Liberal Democrat MPs vote against the Lobbying Bill, or ‘gagging law’, this Wednesday. But the majority of Lib Dem MPs voted loyally in support of the government. Overall, this week parliament did nothing to dispel the perception that the gagging law is being actively driven by Lib Dems.
Why is this? Most Lib Dems tend to assume it’s a Conservative bill driven by Andrew Lansley. Amongst those closer to the party leadership, the tone is more bullish and the attitude towards the bill’s critics is actively hostile. Those that fall between the two camps say that the bill is well-intentioned but has unintended consequences which need fixing.
Senior Lib Dems make three claims:
- It’s about stopping US style super PACs from distorting politics in the UK.
- It’s about bringing greater transparency to the democratic process.
- The concerns and the legal advice to much of the voluntary sector are totally without foundation.
Most of the voluntary sector would probably sign up to stopping super PACs and promoting transparency. 38 Degrees members certainly do.
But this bill does not take big money out of politics. It constrains organisations like 38 Degrees, the Countryside Alliance, Friends of the Earth, the Royal British Legion and Christian Aid – diverse groups fuelled by small donations from tens of thousands of members. On the other hand a multimillionaire like Lord Ashcroft or Lord Sainsbury can continue to make huge donations to political parties as much they like.
The Lib Dem leadership rejoinder to this is that at some point in the future, if party funding were sorted out, super PACS could become a problem. Perhaps in that case we should introduce some kind of donations cap on individual donations to third parties for any activities which fall under regulation by the electoral commission.
When I suggested this idea to Tom Brake a few weeks ago, his response was that “no one has suggested that before.” If he’d held any consultation before pushing through the gagging law, maybe someone would have! If the gagging law is withdrawn and a proper process of consultation launched, the voluntary sector would eagerly participate in trying to improve the regulatory framework.
As for the bill being about transparency, there are bits of the bill which are about transparency, and they are not for the most part the bits which the voluntary sector is objecting to. The big exception to this is spending thresholds. To impose the same reporting regime on large, national organisations like 38 Degrees and on tiny local campaign group turning over just over £5000 a year, is to risk swamping small organisations with red tape. With proper consultation surely we could come up with a more gradated system which improves transparency without stifling small local groups?
We have made public the legal advice on which our analysis is based. Tom Brake is unable to do the same with the legal advice upon which he says his counter-analysis is based.
We now need to look to the House of Lords to fix this dangerous, desperately flawed bill. The timeframe the government is trying to impose on the Lords risks making a hard task impossible.
The formation of a Commission on Civil Society and Democracy should help. It is encouraging that Tom Brake has apparently agreed to appear before the Commission and give evidence. Let’s hope that the Commission is able to come up with some solid recommendations in the little time government is allowing.
* David Babbs is the Executive Director of 38 Degrees.