Opinion: Why I backed the lobbying bill

Sarah Teather’s interview in the Guardian over the Christmas period talked about the way the political system tends to invent simple issues, in order to give the impression of solving them.

She is clearly right. Because governments are beset by global issues, by phenomenally complex systems, and they fear upsetting their key compromises – then it must sometimes seem easier to stick to the purely symbolic.

What Sarah didn’t say is that oppositions and campaign groups are almost as guilty. They create symbolic issues over proposed legislation which they can campaign on. They win, nothing changes, and everyone stays happy.

It seems to me that the furore generated by the online campaign group 38 Degrees over the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, a mouthful which they dubbed the ‘Gagging Bill’, has been one of these symbolic campaigns, designed for sound and fury, signifying little.

The debate, which never quite rose to being a debate, has been rather a depressing lesson on how not to look ahead.

Here is the issue as far as I’m concerned. The problem is the rise of extreme inequality, and the new class of ubermensch, mega-bankers and oligarchs on both sides of the Atlantic, with huge political ambitions.

In the USA, the shadowy Koch brothers have funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars into explicitly political campaigns designed to intervene in the electoral process – usually in favour of ultra-conservative causes and oil interests.

Unusually, for UK governments – normally so adept at shutting stable doors after horses have bolted – the Lobbying Bill was a result of thinking ahead and nipping Koch UK and their equivalents in the bud,

In doing so, it seems to me that they were aware that – once the oligarchs have arrived and are funnelling money into UK elections – the chances of action would be slim. The bolting horse had to be still inside.

Unfortunately, as we know, this debate was never joined. Instead, 38 Degrees manufactured a panic among campaign groups that their own rights to campaign were being curtailed, adding to the cynicism about government – if that was possible – when the bill badly needed more reasoned debate.

As a result I have felt entirely disillusioned by 38 Degrees, when I had been involved in the original discussions about setting it up. I felt occasionally that I was the only one with the opposite point of view – heavens, Gareth Epps even described the few like me as ‘shameful’ (to be fair, he was actually talking about Joe Otten).

This is not to say that the Lobbying Bill succeeded in its other objectives (the controls on lobbyists are far too weak).

Or that it managed to make an already ambiguous law any clearer (it didn’t, but it didn’t make it any less clear either).

Or that it prevents those same oligarchs funnelling money into old or new political parties (it doesn’t and it should).

But it has attempted to prevent the hijack of UK elections, and this seems not to have been recognised as a legitimate objective by the campaign groups, who naively followed the 38 Degrees line – instead of focussing on what really mattered.

Yes, it would have been more sensible to exclude charities from that section of the bill entirely, since they are already prevented by charity law from party political campaigning – though you wouldn’t know this from 38 Degrees.

It would have helped if a better definition could have been drawn – it still could be – that would make it clearer what is legitimate campaigning and what is political campaigning around elections, where there need to be spending limits.

But if we want to prevent the ultra-wealthy buying elections in future, there do need to be spending limits when campaigning is actually electoral.

I don’t know whether the bill will go through. I hope it will. But I hope the campaigners who have made such an issue of this will give the sponsors of the bill the credit for thinking ahead – understanding the threat to democracy and trying to act on it.

Because if we don’t give governments the credit for thinking ahead on the rare occasions when they do, it won’t encourage them to do it again.

* David Boyle is a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate and the author of Tickbox (Little, Brown). You can buy the book from Hive or Amazon.

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  • Thank you, that really clarifies it for me. I had found the argument against restricting well heeled lobbying difficult to make sense of, particularly when it came from people such as Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. I do hope the amendments you suggest can be included, but with such knee-jerk opposition it will be difficult.

  • A Social Liberal 13th Jan '14 - 11:55am

    David said

    “Instead, 38 Degrees manufactured a panic among campaign groups that their own rights to campaign were being curtailed, adding to the cynicism about government – if that was possible – when the bill badly needed more reasoned debate.”.

    Absolutely not true. At least one campaigning group that I personally have contact with (the Royal British Legion) assessed for themselves how this bill, if enacted, would destroy their ability to attempt to influence our government. The INDEPENDENT legal advice they received confirmed the conclusions they (the RBL – not 38 Degrees) had come to.

    Does David have evidence that the people at RSPB, Campaign for Rural England etc did not similarly assess the bill without the supposed machiavellian machinations of 38 Degrees? It will be interesting to see if he does.

  • Simon McGrath 13th Jan '14 - 12:32pm

    Excellent article. It is increasingly clear that many of 38 degrees campaigns are either ludicrously overblown or simply invented.

  • A great article, David.

    I have at times supported 38 Degrees and do believe some – not all – of their work has really helped to give a voice to your everyday people. Their campaigning on the NHS has generally been very positive, in my opinion.

    However, this campaign – among others – has left me with the uneasy feeling that 38 Degrees has become more focused on being seen to give people a voice against the Government, than actually giving people a voice against a government’s questionable acts.

  • Peter Watson 13th Jan '14 - 2:09pm

    @David Boyle
    Two sentences from this article leave me confused about the point it is making.
    “Here is the issue as far as I’m concerned. The problem is the rise of extreme inequality, and the new class of ubermensch, mega-bankers and oligarchs on both sides of the Atlantic, with huge political ambitions.”
    “This is not to say that the Lobbying Bill succeeded in its other objectives … Or that it prevents those same oligarchs funnelling money into old or new political parties (it doesn’t and it should).”
    So your main reason for supporting the bill is to restrict oligarchs which you then admit it does not achieve?
    The article seems to be saying the Bill is a good idea but poorly implemented, so perhaps a better conclusion is that the Bill should go back to the drawing-board rather than be passed into legislation.

  • Peter Hayes 13th Jan '14 - 2:10pm

    I have to agree with a social liberal. When you get organizations the size of the National Trust being concerned they do so not because of another much smaller campaigning group but because their own lawyers are worried. There are plenty of other problems with the bill, it is far too weak about commercial lobbyists. As for outside interests putting money into politics it already happens. At the last general election where I live there was a large vote Conservative poster where every estate access road met the road linking them together. All paid for by a single persons donation to Conservative Central Office .

  • I fully agree with the arguments that big money should be kept out of politics and that lobbying of parliament and government should be open and regulated. However, the article admits that the current bill achieves neither objective anything like completely. The complex requirements and low thresholds for regulation in the bill are what have concerned so many organisations and individuals, including those like myself who refused to join the 38 Degrees campaign. (I listened rather more to the objections of the Electoral Commission and the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee .)

    So much energy has been put into reverting definitions back to those in the existing act, raising the numbers to more reasonable levels and now, it is suggested, taking charities out of the picture altogether that the other inadequacies of the bill have almost passed without debate.

  • Robert Hamilton 13th Jan '14 - 2:42pm

    As you say, the bill has weak controls on lobbyist, has ambigious laws, does not prevent oligarchs from supporting parties, should have excluded charities, is unclear about what is legitimate campaigning. Why do you support a bill that has these defects? A reason you give is a personal argument you had with colleagues 38 Degrees. As I support 38 Degrees, because take action and campaign where the political parties now fail us, I can agree will the defects you see in the bill and cannot agree with your support of it.
    What the Kochs’ do in the USA the oligarchs do in the UK, largely funnelling money to the Tories, and the Tory press adds to the imbalance in UK elections. 38 Degrees is funded by the non-rich people who are asked what they want, unlike the parties who ignore the views that members express at the party conferences. 38 Degrees brings some democratic clout into a system which is seen as irrelevant to many, and is why a growing number do not vote.
    The electoral law in the USA is so different from that in the UK that anti Koch argument is irrelevant.

  • Whatever the merits of original intentions of the Lobbying Bill may have been – and I accept that there is a case for a proper bill on the subjects of lobbying and regulating third party campaigning at election times – the whole thing is a misbegotten shambles because it was prepared in secret, not preceded by proper consultations with stakeholders, it had no pre-legislative scrutiny, it was thrown at Parliament with no notice at all, it was manifestly not properly thought through and badly drafted, and was rushed though the Commons in such a hurry that you could only deduce that the Government wanted to avoid debate and scrutiny as much as possible and it was voted though by dumb lobby fodder. More fundamentally, it gives every appearance of constitutional bill being pushed through as a partisan party-political initiative by an arrogant executive. If it looks like a dodgy cowboy job, it might just about be possible that it is one. The most amazing thing at all is the utter political incompetence of the LibDems in that they did not smell a rat when they first got sight of this bill. They had nothing to gain by it, for the whole thing just looked wrong from day one. Only a total political amateur could “back” this particular bill. LibDems with any common sense, self-respect and political instinct should have thrown it out immediately and should have insisted on a proper, carefully considered, bill be prepared by an all-party committee after extensive consultations. Now they are stuck with an embarrassment of a bill. I despise LibDem MPs who do not vote according to their own informed judgement but allow themselves to be whipped to vote for such rubbish by their party bosses.

  • Callum Hawthorne 13th Jan '14 - 6:22pm

    I signed the Petition on 38 Degrees and wrote a letter to my local MP as I was mainly concerned about the haphazard and clumsy nature and presentation of the bill. However, having read this article and heard the thoughts of my fellow liberals I now see that I may have been caught up in a sensationalized attack on democracy. I will use more discretion with my media sources in future.

  • A question. Do I correctly (but very fuzzily) remember that some years ago the Conservatives proposed a plan to limit ‘political’ campaigning by charities? If memory serves it was shouted down as many pointed out that for many charities both large and small an element of campaigning is intrinsic to what they do whether it is seeking better housing, transport links, anything NHS related and so on. This looks suspiciously like a second attempt to go down that road.

    Democracy is one man one vote, not one dollar one vote so I entirely agree with David’s desire to limit the influence of oligarchs but question whether this bill will do anything much in that direction. It doesn’t cover businesses so the likes of the Kochs would get to drive straight through the front door and it will it prevent certain non-resident Lords from their free-spending ways in support of the Conservatives.

    If this bill is to go ahead at all, then companies should be subject to the same restrictions as the voluntary sector and it should absolutely prohibit foreign owned or controlled companies from contributing or seeking to influence elections. I would like to think that the Lib Dem side of the Coalition would insist on this. Unfortunately, it appears that they merely took dictation.

  • Err, proofreading fail. Middle paragraph should read … it won’t prevent certain non-resident Lords from continuing their free-spending ways …

  • David Allen 13th Jan '14 - 7:04pm

    If this bill was all about oligarchs and super PACs, then why on earth didn’t the government spokespeople say so? It would have been a very simple way to gain public support and send the protesters packing. If it had had a shred of truth in it, that is.

    It’s easy to smear 38 Degrees. It’s a lot harder to explain why independent charities like RSPB and the British Legion opposed the bill.

    Manufactured panic? I rather fear that it’s the opposite. As Wille Whitelaw once put it, this post is “stirring up apathy”!

  • I think this discussion of the Bill is the most lucid I’ve read. Would this have been possible without 38 Degrees whose petition I supported. On balance I’m still comfortable with that if only because it’s clear the Bill is flawed on a number of fronts.

  • Andrew Colman 14th Jan '14 - 11:02am

    The lobbying bill may have been drafted with good intentions, but its been drafted so badly,its targeting the wrong people.

    The Koch Brothers could be stopped by limiting how much an “individual” person or corporation could spend. Campaign groups (such as w38 degrees) consistes of 1000s of supporter. It is not fair that the same limit should be applied to a group of perhaps 100000 supporters as applied to a corporation owned by one man.

    The limit to campaign groups should be £390000 x number of members (no individual member can donate more than 390000 and the limit to individual lobbyists or companies should also be £390000

  • Andrew Colman 14th Jan '14 - 11:05am

    Fellow Lib Dems take note. If this anti democratic illiberal lobbying bill goes through, I am likely to cancel my direct debit to the Lib Dems and give the money to 38 degrees instead.

  • I completely agree with Alex’s post.

    I work for a small children’s charity. The suggestion that we are worried about this due to ‘manufactured panic’ from 38 Degrees is pretty insulting. Rather, we based our analysis on the thorough legal advise provided to NCVO by Helen Mountfield QC – http://blogs.ncvo.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/chloe-stables/Opinion-for-NCVO-on-Part-2-of-the-Transparency-Bill.pdf

    I have also been involved in the lobbying effort that has been coordinated by the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement. I suggest that those who think this is a storm in a teacup read the Commission’s two reports (http://civilsocietycommission.info/). What has been most dispiriting about the process (until very recently when they announced some positive amendments for Lords Report stage) has been the government’s unwillingness to engage with the issues. Detailed reports from a respected QC and the Electoral Commission (not to mention charities from across the political spectrum) have been dismissed as alarmist without any explanation as to why their analysis is wrong.

    It would be one thing for the govt to make a well argued case, backed up by evidence. Even if I disagreed, I could at least respect their position. But for the govt to introduce sweeping changes to campaigning rules without a green paper, white paper, pre-legislative scrutiny or even a basic consultation and then express surprise when legitimate concerns are raised, is extremely shoddy.

    As a Lib Dem, I had also assumed that part 2 of the Bill (which deals with NGO campaigning) had been written as a result of Conservative views that the proper role of charities is to deliver services and that campaigning represents the politicisation of charities by ex-Labour operatives (though of course campaigning has always been central to the mission of charities). However, and I hate to say it, but the experience of the Commission on Civil Society has been that part 2 of the Bill is being driven by the Liberal Democrats due to concerns about the damage done to the party by the NUS.

    Fortunately, the govt has already started to backtrack on part 2. I’m relatively optimistic that they will also suffer defeats at report stage. Fingers crossed the Commons also sees sense.

  • Andrew Colman writes:

    The Koch Brothers could be stopped by limiting how much an “individual” person or corporation could spend

    How do you propose to limit how much anyone gives to ‘charity’? If the ‘charity’ is, for example, working to reduce immigration, perhaps funding migrants to leave and lobbying for more restrictive immigration rules, how would you limit donations?

    Many self-proclaimed ‘independent’ ‘think tanks’ run as charities. They clearly have a political agenda. It is annoying when the media trot out their pronouncements as disinterested comment. Would you limit donations to these groups? If so how? If not, are you content that big money can manipulate the democratic process?

  • Being somewhat of an insomniac I caught part of the Lords debate on this in the early hours of this morning starting with an amendment moved by Lord Norton of Louth (one of the country’s leading academic experts on Parliamentary and constitutional issues). His point was that the bill is misconceived, that it sets up onerous (and expensive to comply with) registration and reporting requirements but will do precisely NOTHING to tell us who is actually lobbying about what. His alternative proposal was to extend existing procedures (therefore much cheaper to implement) so that contacts between lobbyists (whether consultant lobbyist, in-house corporate lobbyist or someone representing voluntary organisation) and ministers or policy-making civil servants (and not just Permanent Secretaries as in the bill) should be recorded and subsequently published. Lord Norton argued that this could be done relatively easily and cheaply and, more to the point, would actually target lobbying rather than a small minority of lobbyists. The amendment was supported on all sides of the house but inevitably lost to the government steamroller.

    Separately, it’s pretty disgraceful to give Trade Unions their own special section in the bill in a move that can only be construed as a continuation of Thatcher’s war on them especially since it set up onerous reporting duties on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Sure, union power was sometimes problematical in the 1980s but that’s a long time ago now. On a scale of 100 I would put unions as a problem somewhere around 2 or 3 but banks at 99 or 100. Banks are, of course, not covered by the bill.

  • I am frequently irked by 38D, but in this instance I fear they called it correctly.

    In essence it was the result of an over-hasty rush by us combining with a rather nasty Tory attempt to muzzle Trade’s unions; hands up, I work for one, but a nice one, honest…

    Lord Norton’s amendments sounded eminently sensible, and I can only hope that as predicted by Nick, HMG will see sense and completely abandon part 2, or at the very least see that it’s attempt to be Machiavellian has been uncovered and so pull back on the more onerous, and wholly unwarrented, aspects of it.

    I do anticipate some pretty harsh words flying in York!

  • James Sandbach 15th Jan '14 - 12:00pm

    Whilst corporate/commercial lobbying and influence with it’s associated and un-transparent cash nexus with Government and politics needs to tacked, there is a real problem with Government regulating the campaigning activities of charities and civil society – I can’t think of a single progressive change and development in public policy (from universal suffrage and abolition of slavery onwards, to modern human and social rights) that has not been put on the political agenda by such campaigning activity from interests, organisations and community leadership (including Unions) outside parliament – such progressive change is rarely initiated from Government and Parliament itself. The basic criticism from NGO sector, 38 degrees et all is fair – that to make this activity harder by increasing the financial control and regulation of such campaigns especially in election run-ups, risks undermining democracy itself. It’s no defence for Lib Dem MPs to say they’ve amended the legislation to take it back to something more like Labour’s PPREA (Political Parties, Electiona and Referendums Act 2000) regime, as the Lib Dems were the most highly critical opponents of this legislation at the time.. including that it created a much more difficult environment for volunteer led local parties to flourish and operate (and remains the bane of every local party’s treasurer’s life). The party’s campaigning roots are from the same stable as civil society organisations. I’m amazed that David Boyle and others in the Party don’t seem to see the basic problem and contradiction here.

  • Michael Parsons 16th Jan '14 - 7:56pm

    Adrew2 Coloman
    38 degrees is becoming a registered charity I believe, and we can all donate DD’s to them, Bill or not. I suggest the more that do, the better, in face of this extraordinary coalition Bill – which they might try to reintroduce yet.
    Given fixed-term Parliaments which in effect guarantee MP’s a seat no matter what they get up to, we urgently need (a) Civil Society campaigns on a scale not previously seen and (b) renewed efforts to introduce measures for the recall of individual MP’s to face reselection in a new election, constuency by constituency, whith this recall-power triggered by a a local voter petition. How else can we be protected from the Duck House tendency and worse, far worse?
    The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance.

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