The illiberal bill that nobody loves

This article originally appeared on Spiked-online, September 3 2013

On Tuesday, the Lobbying Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons. Tabled by the increasingly misnamed Liberal Democrats, in coalition with the Conservatives, this illiberal piece of legislation has been promoted under the usual guise of making politics better for everyone involved. The bill is underpinned by the patronising presumption that Britain’s voters must be sheltered from having their outlook moulded by Big Business and its supposedly dangerous financial might.

The full title of the bill is the titillating and awe-inspiring ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill’. It was originally intended to counter the perceived issue of lobbying in Parliament, which some see as especially poignant in the wake of UK prime minister David Cameron’s decision to drop the plan to introduce ‘plain packs’ for cigarettes. In the eyes of his critics, Cameron’s decision must have had something to do with the connections between his adviser Lynton Crosby and Big Tobacco. The decision couldn’t possibly be due to the fact that the plan was flawed and possibly even illegal.

Some may welcome the bill’s curbing of the amount that a political party or candidate can spend in the run up to an election, from the current £988,000 to £390,000. This is not, however, the main issue at hand. The bill has been drafted to include restrictions on a whole series of activities that can be considered ‘political’. This could, according to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, have a ‘chilling effect’ on the political processes of third-party organisations, since these restrictions cover much more than lobbying in the corridors of power. Essentially, as it stands, the bill will affect think-tanks, blogs, charities, community groups and activists, who will all see their liberties grossly impinged upon. For instance, the language of the bill is so utterly vague, and the drafting so loose, that any individual or group who spends more than £5,000 on something that may affect an election will be required to register with the Electoral Commission. In other words, the financial liberty of third parties will be limited and non-compliance with the new regulations could result in criminal punishment.

Perhaps most bizarrely is that the legislation will cover actions by third parties that were not even intended to have a political impact in the first place. The bill’s definition of ‘election purposes’, for instance, includes things that were never intended to impact upon the electoral process. As the lawyer and journalist, David Allen Green, points out, ‘it covers not only current elections but any elections in the future’. Make no mistake: this means that any organisation or individual who campaigns on any issue which could, at any stage, even decades from now, have an impact on an election campaign, is potentially caught up by this legislation.

The bill, moreover, does not consider the intention of the organisation when determining whether an individual or group’s actions are regulated, and thus can effect even the smallest of organisations at a local level. This means there will state regulatory intervention for any aspect of politics outside of the party system. This will also have a severe effect on freedom of expression. Political blogs, for example, such as ConservativeHome or Labour List, may very well find themselves being caught-up in this execrable piece of legislation.

This is the bill that almost everyone seems to hate, from liberal campaign group 38 Degrees, which says the ‘proposed gagging law would have a chilling effect on British democracy’, to the conservative Taxpayers’ Alliance, which says: ‘The bill is a serious threat to independent politics that will stifle free and open democratic debate.’

Much of modern life today is political; the age of the internet and modernisation has allowed for this, and this is something to cherish, not something to punish and hold in contempt. At a time when the membership of the main political parties is dwindling, and the population holds policymakers in Whitehall and Westminster in contempt, does anyone truly believe that it is beneficial to further discourage people from participating in the political sphere?

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