The Independent View: The Lobbying Bill threatens grass-roots campaigning

 gagging law

Take a good look at this picture. This is what grass-roots political activism looks like – and you’ll be seeing a lot less of it if the coalition’s “Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill” becomes law.

The photo was taken early on a chilly Wednesday morning in January 2010. Having learned that Immigration Minister Phil Woolas would be making an unannounced visit to an ID Card fingerprinting trial at Cambridge Post Office, our local NO2ID group organised this pavement protest at short notice. Within 9 months the incoming Coalition government would largely repeal the hated Identity Cards Act; during the debate on the repeal Bill, Mr Woolas’ successor as Immigration Minister hailed NO2ID as “one of the most successful pressure groups in history“.

However, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) makes running a non-party-political campaign like NO2ID a delicate business. PPERA regulates publication of “material which can reasonably be regarded as intended to … promote or procure electoral success … for candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions“. Publishing anything on any subject where a party politician holds an opinion is therefore potentially regulated. With over 60,000 supporters but only two part-time employees, NO2ID could not afford the administrative burden of routinely filing PPERA’s mandated paperwork. Instead, by limiting annual spending on publications that might be considered “election material” to £10,000 in England and £5,000 each in Scotland and Wales, we stayed below the registration threshold, and over six long years campaigned our way to eventual victory.

All this would go out of the window if the Lobbying Bill is enacted in its current form. Even with recent amendments, the Bill would greatly extend the scope of PPERA regulations to include canvassing, polling, dealings with the media and public meetings that might “reasonably be regarded as intended to promote” a candidate holding a particular opinion. The registration threshold would be reduced to £5,000 in England and £2,000 each in Scotland and Wales, obliging any national campaign to file quarterly reports, which would become weekly in the run-up to an election. The workload and potential liability for campaign volunteers would become unacceptable. If enacted, part 2 of the Lobbying Bill would effectively suppress grass-roots campaigns like NO2ID that genuinely reflect public opinion.

Part 2 of this Bill was published without any prior consultation, then whipped through the Commons in a matter of days. The House of Lords Constitution Committee has warned that it directly affects the fundamental common law right to freedom of political expression. To many of us outside party politics, it looks like an attempt to limit politics to “licensed politicians”.

Their Lordships begin debating the Bill on Tuesday. How ironic that, once again, we must rely on the unelected House of Lords to defend the foundations of our democracy.

 

* Andrew Watson campaigned against the Conservatives' attempt to introduce compulsory ID cards in 1994-7, and Labour's ID Card proposals from 2001 to 2010. He has been the local coordinator of NO2ID's Cambridge local group since 2004. He has never been a member of any political party.

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14 Comments

  • James Baker 22nd Oct '13 - 5:02pm

    Well said Andrew, the Liberal Democrat Lords need to make further amendments to this bill namely.
    :
    “(c) candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions or who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of candidates.”

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/2013-2014/0050/lbill_2013-20140050_en_3.htm#pt2-pb1-l1g26

    You could argue this might allow a campaign to be set up on the hoof that lends favor or disfavor to parties with unique polices. However parties get to choose their policies, and candidates get to choose the degree to which they back these polices.

    There were no significant parties at the 2005 or 2010 elections in favor of the ID scheme except Labour. But that’s just a contingency. This wording could stop many campaigns carrying out their policy campaigning, because it places many more bureaucratic hurdles upon them. Most grass roots campaigns have nowhere near the administrative infrastructure of political parties, they are groups of passionate citizens who have got together because they believe in a cause.

    This legislation will impact more on smaller grass roots campaigns, larger campaigns perhaps financed by other sources of money will find it easier to jump through the bureaucratic hoops. Reporting once a week during a campaign is also excessive.

  • David Allen 22nd Oct '13 - 6:23pm

    “Weekly PPERA returns during the general election campaign? Is this really the best time to run single issue campaigns anyway? You will be less effective than at other times, because you will be drowned out by the actual electioneering. Unless what you are trying to do is actual electioneering.”

    Hmm, so, it’s a great idea to tell people all about the menace of ID cards, provided you do it well away from an election period. Then, everybody can go down the pub and talk about ID cards, and how they would never vote for a party which would bring them in. Then come election time, everybody can forget about ID cards, because (to use Joe Otten’s own words) their previous pub talks about the subject will have been “drowned out” by whatever the politicians have chosen to campaign about. So, nobody remembers on election day that they were never intending to vote for a party that would bring in ID cards.

    If you are campaigning against ID cards – or against world poverty – or for gay rights – or for or against abortion – or on a host of issues which cut across political party lines but do involve political decisions – Then you want people to remember your campaign at the time that it matters. Election time.

    Instead, we’re all going to be programmed to vote on the basis of what the politicians want us to listen to. Bogus endless statistics. Backchat. False promises. Misleading manifestos. With nobody on hand to provide an independent fact check, because our Liberal laws have made it too legally risky to get involved. Wonderful.

  • The regulations are probably flawed (they usually are) but as a former parliamentary candidate I would welcome anything which controls:

    a) “pro-life” campaigning – funded by wealthy special interest groups – which is essentially saying Vote Conservative during an election campaign;
    b) “stop the cuts/ protect the NHS/ schools/ public services” campaigning – funded by the unions – which is essentially saying Vote Labour during an election campaign.

  • James Baker 22nd Oct '13 - 9:52pm

    Joe I would argue during a general election campaign people are more willing to engage in political discussions on lots of issues. I should declare that I am involved in NO2ID, and from my own experience I’ve seen a peak in interest in issues during both general election campaigns that have occurred since our campaign was established. We would do street stalls and collect far more petitions and signatures during this period.

    I’m glad you recognize that some of PPERA regulations are too onerous. The problem is “PPERA regulates publication of “material which can reasonably be regarded as intended to … promote or procure electoral success … for candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions“. That means if any single issue group campaigns on an issue that a candidate has expressed a view on they could under this definition be said to be promoting them. I think you need to make the distinction between say a leaflet that says vote X because y is a bad thing and a leaflet that just says y is a bad thing.

    The legislation also assumes groups can have some reporting structure. Many campaigns and alliances are loose associations of people, how for instance would the ‘occupy’ movement account for all expenditure made by people who choose to call themselves by that name.

    Hopefully some of our Lords can make a few more amendments to this legislation. It certainly isn’t a deliberate attempt to gag anyone, but it is I think a case of some good intentions being led astray by some bad drafting that will have unintended consequences.

  • James baker said: “The legislation also assumes groups can have some reporting structure. Many campaigns and alliances are loose associations of people, how for instance would the ‘occupy’ movement account for all expenditure made by people who choose to call themselves by that name.” This is a fascinating point which has, as far as I know has not been raised by ANY speaker in the Commons or the Lords, and the Electoral commission has, it seems, also not though of this aspect. The point should be generalised further: what about a number of campaigning of individuals who all by and large campaign on th e same issue/policies but have no discernable organised structure whatsoever, so who cannot register, report etc. because there is noientifyable person who could do these thing? Part 2 of the Bill could actually promote such forms of campiagning, and they would be outside all controls. that would be another unintended consequence. By the way, the Electoral Commission may also have to start looking at political astroturfing if it happens at any scale at election times and track down the sources.

  • Crewegwyn, on a visceral level I share your feelings. It’s depressing to see wealthy “pro-life” groups piling in to an election and trying to hijack it. It’s also unpleasant to see unions piling in and demanding that the taxpayer should go on paying for public sector jobs.

    However – it’s a free country – what right has anybody to censor these activities?

    Besides, I really wonder whether they achieve what they aim to achieve. The union adverts convey the message that Labour is prepared to waste your money on jobs that are not really needed. The pro-life ads may well convey a message that your cheerful business-friendly Tory candidate is actually a religious nut on the side. I reckon these people lose votes, rather than gaining them!

  • Andrew Watson 22nd Oct '13 - 10:48pm

    crewegwyn wrote:

    “… as a former parliamentary candidate I would welcome anything which controls:

    a) pro-life campaigning – funded by wealthy special interest groups …

    b) stop the cuts/ protect the NHS/ schools/ public services campaigning – funded by the unions …”

    In my experience a national grass-roots campaign like NO2ID has lots of individual supporters, lots of enthusiasm, little money, almost no professional staff and very loose reporting structures. Tracking all expenditure made nationally in its name on media engagements, meetings, canvassing etc and then filing weekly reports is beyond such a campaign’s abilities. The people involved are motivated to engage with other voters, not with bureaucracies. Part 2 would therefore drive such campaigns out of existence.

    I don’t have any direct experience of well-funded Astroturfing, but I imagine these organisations are centrally managed by professional staff, have plenty of money, and would have little difficulty navigating the bureaucracy of registering, filing reports, and spend right up to the £390,000 national limit. I suspect that Part 2 would reduce their their total spending somewhat, but not otherwise inconvenience them.

    Hence I don’t see this Bill achieving what you want, but I know it would cripple genuine, grass-roots campaigns.

  • Julian Tisi 23rd Oct '13 - 9:06am

    PPERA rules are unspeakably ridiculous – they are far too onerous. They treat volunteers as if they’re FTSE100 company legal and compliance experts. many of us have been put off – or had to reconsider – being candidates, agents, treasurers etc. due to their onerous and unnecessarily bureaucratic rules.

    I can undertstand small national campaigns that might “reasonably be regarded as intended to … promote or procure electoral success … for candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions” like perhaps NO2ID feeling the same way.

    The rules need to be more reasonable – and for all of us, political volunteers too. But the general point is surely reasonable – that SOME reasonable rules are needed to identify, limit and shine a light on political funding. The rules should be made more proportionate – but then they SHOULD apply to groups such as NO2ID, pro-life groups, unions etc. The idea that these groups can’t control or understand what they spend their money on is frankly rubbish.

  • Crewegwyn pretty much sums it up. Liberal Democrats are willing to accept any infringement of liberty if it undermines the ability of their political opponents to campaign.

    In the interests of fairness Crewegwyn we should add to your list and include any campaigning against authoritarian anti-civil liberties legislation which is pretty much saying Vote Lib Dem, so Liberty should be forced to shut up shop during an election year too.

    Ultimately though, as long as this is primarily anti-union legislation the Lib Dems will allow it to succeed without regard to the illiberalism this represents.

  • Andrew Colman 23rd Oct '13 - 2:53pm

    Crewegwyn wote:
    “I was a former parliamentary candidate I would welcome anything which controls:

    a) “pro-life” campaigning – funded by wealthy special interest groups – which is essentially saying Vote Conservative during an election campaign;
    b) “stop the cuts/ protect the NHS/ schools/ public services” campaigning – funded by the unions – which is essentially saying Vote Labour during an election campaign”

    This is a dreadful argument. It can be summed up by saying . I don’t like Xs views so X should not have a voice. Such an argument is more typical of Soviet Russia’s suppression of dissent rather than informed debate in a democratic country. In addition, nearly all Lib Dems I know and many conservatives also believe in an NHS free at the point of delivery and well funded good quality public services. I what you ( Crewegwyn say is true) then all decent people should move to labour.
    .
    Out of interest, which party did you (Crewegwyn) stand for as an MP? I thank God you were not elected given the views you have expressed.

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