Buying votes – Lord Tyler on the Lobbying Bill

Big Ben £Concerted non-party campaigns now weave more citizens together than the parties can dream of, and raise a lot of money in the process. They do so not with intensely political ‘values’, but with a chance to pit ‘the people’ against ‘the politicians’ on a given issue. For better or worse, this has a broader appeal than the starkly partisan campaigning we are used to.

The challenge Parliament has to deal with is what all this means for elections, in which non-party groups may increasingly express a preference for one party, or even a group of parties, over the others. Whether it is a group of farmers and rural residents coming together in an association, or a trade union, or a big email list of broadly left-wing people, it is only right and natural that together such organisations should be able to say whom they most support to defend their views and interests. The question is whether the wealthier organisations – or even maverick millionaires – should be able to drown out the poorer ones. I strongly believe they should not.

In the last fortnight the fundamental right of free speech has been conflated with the supposed right to spend unlimited sums of money influencing election outcomes. To confuse the two is to dispense with more than a century of electoral law. Gladstone’s Liberal Government first introduced strict limits on spending in elections, in the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883. There is nothing new in that principle, as anyone who has taken on the responsibility of Agent knows.

In 2000, Labour presciently put in place national limits on spending at elections by non-party campaigners, permitting each group to spend just under £1 million in the year before an election. The Coalition does not believe that these organisations should be “gagged”, but it does believe this limit is too high.

The Transparency Bill will create a level playing field on which membership organisations without rich backers can compete. The new limits are still generous at £390,000 a year. And thanks to a Lib Dem amendment from John Thurso MP, which the Government have agreed to implement at Report Stage, it will be totally clear that charities can continue to campaign on policy issues. This reinforces the Government’s position that charities will be just as free to campaign on policy issues in 2015 as they were in 2001, 2005 or 2010.

Of course, Liberal Democrats want to reform party finance rules reformed as well. Had we succeeded in this endeavour, the Bill might have been – and been seen to be – more balanced. We favour at least a £10,000 cap (there are good arguments for it to be lower still) on individual and corporate donations to political parties themselves, and a reduction by 15% of the existing party spending limits. There are now signs from John Denham that Labour is belatedly accepting this case, but they have done so too late in this Parliament to secure the tripartite agreement necessary to make progress. In the cross-party talks, less than a year ago, they dragged their feet about the union link and in so doing let the Conservative Party off the donation cap hook.

In that light, the Bill before Parliament is the minimum necessary – and the maximum possible – to help ensure the next election is won not by the flourish of a millionaire’s cheque book but by the support of millions of people persuaded to use millions of votes in a fair campaign. Gladstone’s Liberals supported these same principles in 1883. We should support them still in 2013.

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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7 Comments

  • I agree that campaign spending should be limited for non-party groups as well as parties, and questioned 38 Degrees on this before doing my own research and thinking rather than joining their campaign.

    The question for me is whether it is proportionate to reduce the cap so far while also including several significant extra items in the regulated expenditure and drafting the bill so as to make the question of what is a regulated activity uncertain. This last point is why charities have been concerned that they will be picked up for campaigns which are not intended to be party political. The bill as drafted requires the commission to take into account the effect of an action as well as its intention, which is perceived as a legal minefield.

    Campaigning bodies have to do their accounts for the year before an election, a date which is still not known in advance, though more so than it used to be. Parties need only apply tight controls from the date of the dissolution of parliament. And, of course, if you want to tackle rogue millionaires (in particular) you need to look at constituency campaigning between elections.

    And then there’s the laughable inadequacy of part 1 of the bill. The number of government amendments at committee stage, coupled with a failure to consult properly before the tightly timetabled consideration of the bill, point to a draft which is nowhere near finished.

    That’s all that’s wrong with it.

  • In the last fortnight the fundamental right of free speech has been conflated with the supposed right to spend unlimited sums of money influencing election outcomes. To confuse the two is to dispense with more than a century of electoral law. Gladstone’s Liberal Government first introduced strict limits on spending in elections, in the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883. There is nothing new in that principle, as anyone who has taken on the responsibility of Agent knows.

    In 2000, Labour presciently put in place national limits on spending at elections by non-party campaigners, permitting each group to spend just under £1 million in the year before an election. The Coalition does not believe that these organisations should be “gagged”, but it does believe this limit is too high.

    First paragraph is contradicted by the latter.Why erect a strawman to say this is about preventing unlimited spending, when you admit just a few lines later it’s about reducing the current cap.

    Also, this stuff about ‘rich backers’ is ludicrous. In most cases the campaigning organisations, whether trade unions or environmental groups, rely on large numbers of small donations, not a small number of large donations, unlike modern day political parties.

    What this bill appears to be is an attempt by the Coalition to limit the powers of parts of civil society that may be opposed to their policies.

    It’s profoundly undemocratic.

  • A ‘big email list of broadly left wing people’…

    This is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? A fear of ‘broadly left wing people’ (aka reasonably well-educated thinking people who understand how the world is stacked against them) getting organised enough to scare the elite into thinking ‘Golly! We might not be able to organise society to our financial advantage any more…’

  • Ross Stalker 13th Sep '13 - 3:19pm

    Did you actually read the rest of that sentence Terry or did you stop reading the article there?

    “…a big email list of broadly left-wing people, it is only right and natural that together such organisations should be able to say whom they most support to defend their views and interests.”

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Sep '13 - 3:44pm

    Strange that it’s thought impossible to tackle party funding or party spending limits without “tripartite agreement”, but perfectly reasonable to drive through a huge cut in non-party organisations’ ability to campaign without such consensus.

  • Andrew Colman 14th Sep '13 - 5:51pm

    The suggestion that opponents of the lobbying bill want a free for all is absurd.

    The current limit of £1 million is very sensible. Legitimate campaigns to save hospital for example could easily cost
    this amount. I don’t see any case for reduction particularly if the £1million is made out of small donations from many thousands of people This is what democracy is about.

    However there is an issue about large donations (> £10 000. I would support controls on this.

  • Alan Richardson 20th Oct '13 - 6:25pm

    Some of the aims of the bill have merit but the lack of consultation with charity organisations has meant they are genuinely worried about the effect on their organisations. They have taken legal advice on part two of the bill and regard it as a threat. It is not good that the Lib Dems- a party with a strong reputation for being genuinely democratic will allow such a law to be passed with such little consultation with charity organisations in the first instance.

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