With remarkable ineptitude, the government has succeeded in uniting an extraordinary coalition of political interests against its lobbying bill. Both the left and the right are concerned that the bill (which covers just 1% of lobbying activity) will gag charities, NGOs, think-tanks, trade unions, blogs and other groups by imposing new spending limits on political campaigning in the year before a general election and redefining as electoral activity anything that could affect the outcome of an election (such as criticism of government policy) even if it not intended to do so.
Any organisation that spends more than £5,000 and that engages in political campaigning will be forced to register with the Electoral Commission (with all the accompanying bureaucracy) or or face being shut down.
As I explain in my politics column in this week's NS, the bill is primarily intended as an assault on trade union funding (Unison was the largest third-party spender in 2010).
Masterminded by George Osborne, the legislation is designed as a pre-election gift to Tory candidates who have long complained about the union-funded phone banks, leaflets and adverts enjoyed by their Labour counterparts. The bill will reduce the total cap on third-party expenditure in the year before a general election from £989,000 to £390,000 and the cap on constituency spending to £9,750 and broaden the definition of spending to include staff time and office costs, rather than merely the "marginal cost" of leaflets and other materials.
Behind the legalese, the implications are dramatic. The TUC has warned that it could be forced to cancel its 2014 annual congress and any national demonstrations in the 12 months before the next election to avoid breaching the spending limit.
But so sloppy was the drafting of the bill (ominously for the coalition, it is being piloted by former health secretary Andrew Lansley) that it's far from just trade unions that are concerned. While the government is still likely to pass the legislation in time for the 2015 election, it will now likely only do so by making significant amendments.
Here are some members of the eclectic coalition demanding immediate changes.
Lobbying Bill is rushed & unclear. Surely any legitimate campaign on any policy issue cd be interpreted as party political (& be captured)?
— Zac Goldsmith (@ZacGoldsmith) September 3, 2013
In an age when the internet creates many new channels for influence, the Lobbying Bill tries to regulate it. #NotThoughtThisThrough
— Douglas Carswell MP (@DouglasCarswell) September 3, 2013
It’s time for government to think again on the lobbying bill. It does nothing to clean up politics and will also impose a gag on charities.
— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) September 3, 2013
— Caroline Lucas (@CarolineLucas) September 3, 2013
— Guido Fawkes (@GuidoFawkes) September 2, 2013
"This whole bill is a brutal attack on free speech and the ability of any group that isn’t a political party to campaign. It utterly destroys any argument that Cameron truly wants to see a Big Society – and it’ll crush those who want to see a real political debate about issues that matter at election time."
"The Bill is so loose in its language and so vague in its drafting that anyone who spends over £5,000 on anything that can be in any way said to potentially affect an election will be caught up in the rules it lays out."
The Taxpayers' Alliance
"The bill is a serious threat to independent politics that will stifle free and open democratic debate."
"The proposed gagging law would have a chilling effect on British democracy and our right to speak up on issues that matter to us."
"The most pernicious assault on campaign groups in living memory."
"It's an open secret at Westminster that this rushed Bill has nothing to do with cleaning up lobbying or getting big money out of politics. Instead it is a crude and politically partisan attack on trade unions, particularly those who affiliate to the Labour Party.
"But it has been drawn so widely that its chilling effect will be to shut down dissent for the year before an election. No organisation that criticises a government policy will be able to overdraw their limited ration of dissent without fearing a visit from the police.
"Of course not everyone agrees with TUC views and policies, but I expect there to be wide revulsion at this attack on free speech worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship. This will not just gag unions, but any group or organisation that disagrees with government - or opposition - policies."
"The new rules are complicated and will create uncertainty for organisations trying to comply. Worryingly, there are fears the Bill could affect the ability of organisations to speak out. Given all the recent reviews that have taken place in the NHS about patient safety, it would be very regressive if organisations were unable speak out about poor care in the run-up to an election.
"Needless to say, if the Bill is passed, its impact could be deeply disturbing, especially as it raises concerns about what this would mean for freedom of expression — and it is hard to see how that would benefit democracy."
Helen Mountfield QC, Matrix legal chambers
"This uncertainty about what the law requires is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, by putting small organisations and their trustees/directors in fear of criminal penalty if they speak out on matters of public interest and concern."
National Council for Voluntary Organisations
"At the moment you have to intend to influence an election to be in trouble. But the wording is being changed to ‘if you have the effect’ of influencing an election. What is really dangerous about this is that you may not intend to influence the outcome of a local election — yet the punishment is you could go to prison. We think this legislation will make people frightened of speaking out."
"The Bill both widens the scope of the current rules on non-party campaigning that affects parties and groups of candidates, and imposes some additional controls on such campaigning. In our view, as drafted, the Bill raises some significant issues of workability that you may wish to explore at Second Reading.
Areas that you may wish to focus on in particular include that:
• the Bill creates significant regulatory uncertainty for large and small organisations that campaign on, or even discuss, public policy issues in the year before the next general election, and imposes significant new burdens on such organisations
• the Bill effectively gives the Electoral Commission a wide discretion to interpret what activity will be regulated as political campaigning. It is likely that some of our readings of the law will be contentious and challenged, creating more uncertainty for those affected. While we as the independent regulator should be free to decide when the rules have been broken, and how to deal with breaches of the rules, we do not think it is appropriate for us to have a wide discretion over what activity is covered by the rules
• some of the new controls in the Bill may in practice be impossible to enforce, and it is important that Parliament considers what the changes will achieve in reality, and balances this against the new burdens imposed by the Bill on campaigners."