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Tuesday, September 03, 2013 

How not to tackle the next big scandal.

When a government of any stripe wants to either bury bad news or in this instance, let loose a bad bill, it usually releases it just before parliament goes into recess.  Infamously, on the day Tony Blair was interviewed by the police over the loans for peerages scandal, the government published a veritable boatload of reviews and initiatives, in one of the most transparent attempts to distract attention away from the boss getting a visit from Inspector Knacker.  Only rarely though does it then follow up this attempt at subterfuge by attempting to ram in through the Commons almost as soon as MPs have returned to Westminster.  Instinct alone then ought to suggest that the transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill is a wretched piece of legislation.

Sadly, such is the level Polly Toynbee has reduced herself to, and I speak as someone who is still sympathetic towards her comment pieces (meaning I will at least read them, unlike those scraped together by Zoe Williams), when she writes about how terrible something is, I find it hard not to suspect it perhaps isn't as awful as she's making it out to be.  Then you read the reservations the Electoral Commission, the independent body meant to implement it has (PDF), and it becomes clear that if anything, on this occasion Polly has actually undersold how dreadful the bill could be in practice.

What's at stake most certainly isn't being helped by the BBC's lackadasical reporting of the bill.  The only figure they mention is the overall cap on spending by third-party organisations of £390,000, which is only accurate if the spending is spread across the UK as a whole.  The actual limits are £320,000 in England, 35k in Scotland, 24k in Wales and 11k in Northern Ireland.  What's more, the limits before you have to register with the EC in the year prior to an election seem ridiculously low outside of England: £5,000 is a 50% reduction on the limit as it is, but this falls to a mere £2,000 in Wales, Scotland or NI.  The activities deemed to be political have also been considerably widened, to encompass rallies, media work, polling and "transport for the purpose of obtaining publicity".

How a bill that was supposed to deal with "next big scandal waiting to happen" has transmogrified into an act that looks to muzzle charities, third parties and trade unions isn't initially clear, but it can certainly be guessed at.  With the reforms to constituencies and party funding both deadlocked thanks respectively to the coalition bust-up and intransigence on all sides, the coalition seems to have hit on the next best thing.  Unwilling to accept that the spending by Lord Ashcroft and the Midlands Industrial Council in individual constituencies is akin to that of Unison, the Tories are looking to staunch it by the back door.  Additionally, despite having come into office promising to boost the Big Society, the coalition has also swiftly recognised that come the election, charities, while not advocating a vote for any particular party as the Charities Act prohibits from doing so, are going to be blunt about just how austerity has affected the most vulnerable in society (the Lib Dems especially are worried about how the NUS will campaign on their u-turn on tuition fees).  By making the rules on what is or isn't spending on "political purposes" as clear as mud, they seem determined to frighten organisations into saying as little as possible.

Andrew Lansley certainly didn't go out of his way to deny that this was precisely what the second part of the bill was intended to do, merely that people were scaremongering and that charities shouldn't be running campaigns that look to be partisan without registering in the first place.  As the EC briefing sets out, the potential impact could be draconian.  A local campaign on a planning issue within Wales for instance could have to register, and as spending on employees is included, they could quickly find themselves over first the £2,000 limit and then the £9,750 within a constituency.  As the campaigns against the pylons needed to connect wind farms to the national grid, HS2 and fracking are likely to metastasise between now and the election, a whole new regulatory burden is swiftly going to be placed on activist groups.  The same is the case when it comes to the larger blogs: Wings Over Scotland recently crowd-funded a poll on independence, despite not having any direct affiliation to a party.  Any blog that follows suit should this bill pass will almost certainly have to register, while it's more than possible that other blogs could also be caught up in the regulations, hence why Guido is up in arms.

Quite apart from the potential impact on freedom of speech itself, or indeed the ability of the electorate to be able to make an informed choice on who to vote for, as independent fact checking organisations are also likely to be hit, what really surprises is just how open the coalition seems to be about the direction this takes politics in.  At the same time as some MPs have realised that the old closed off world of Westminster only breeds apathy or worse, others seem to want to turn the clock back to when debate was between parties and the established media only, and for nothing other than the potential of short-term gain.  Shameless, shameful and shaming doesn't even begin to cover it.  And failing a major rebellion, or a rethink from a government that doesn't appear to have any intention of doing so, it looks set to become law.

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