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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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