Does anyone support the coalition's lobbying bill?

The coalition has succeeded in uniting the TUC, the Taxpayers' Alliance, Labour List, ConservativeHome, Caroline Lucas and Zac Goldsmith against the legislation.

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. 

Zac Goldsmith

Douglas Carswell

Ed Miliband 

Caroline Lucas

Guido Fawkes

Labour List

"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."

ConservativeHome

"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."

38 Degrees

"The proposed gagging law would have a chilling effect on British democracy and our right to speak up on issues that matter to us."

Greenpeace

"The most pernicious assault on campaign groups in living memory."

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady

"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 British Medical Association

"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 Electoral Commission

"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."

David Cameron with Leader of the House of Commons Andrew Lansley, who is piloting the lobbying bill through parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.