“I believe that secret corporate lobbying… goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest." - David Cameron, February 2010
It’s not often that I agree with words that come from the mouth of our leader. Evidently, though, people don’t always say what they mean. Otherwise David Cameron might have said something more along the lines of “I believe that civil society gets in the way of how our political system works and undermines our cosy club at the top making decisions in our own interests”.
The Lobbying Bill, promised by the Conservatives in their election campaign, is currently being debated in the House of Commons and has certainly attracted a lot of opposition. It has been described as a “mess” by a Tory MP David Davis and a “dog’s breakfast” by a Labour MP Graham Allen (another Tory MP Douglas Carswell, reportedly refuted this claim saying that "far more thought has gone into pet nutrition"). Civil society campaigners are calling it a “gagging law” and an emergency motion to the TUC conference this week calls it an “assault on free speech, democracy and the gagging of campaign groups.”
Whatever you want to call this Bill, for proponents of free speech and supporters of democracy it is several large steps in the wrong direction. No wonder a strong and diverse range of voices from Oxfam to the Royal British Legion, from the TUC to the Electoral Commission are raising objections.
The measures in the Bill are being presented as a way to shine a light on secret lobbying of government. But in actual fact the impact of the lobbyist register that it proposes is almost laughable. The UK has a £2.2 billion lobbying industry but the Bill only covers a small fraction (about 1%) – perhaps only around 350 lobbyists.
It only includes consultant lobbyists and not those whose main business isn’t lobbying. And it doesn’t include people lobbying anyone more junior than a minister or very senior civil servant. And of course it doesn’t even begin to acknowledge or address the kinds of problems we raised in our Web of Power briefing, which exposed the fact that a third of current ministers have links with either finance or fossil fuel companies.
This will do nothing to get to the heart of the problem of “secret corporate lobbying”. It will do nothing to expose “the lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way” (David Cameron, again).
Bad enough in itself. But in section two the Bill attempts to usher in a blatant and structured attack on civil society and campaigning. By changing the definition of what constitutes campaigning for election purposes in the year before a general election, the Bill would effectively silence many campaign groups during election years.
A u-turn on this part of the bill was announced in the media, but the bill was voted through without the necessary changes by MPs this week, with promises to amend things at the next stage of the process.
Would this all affect WDM? As things stand at the moment, quite probably. All of WDM’s campaigns (and staff time) could count as election campaigning under the new regime, and the proposed cap of £390,000 expenditure on election campaigning would therefore hit us hard.
It seems unlikely that the bill will be passed in its current form. But even with the compromises being discussed the proposals would still affect our colleagues, allies and friends in the social justice movement, including for example those who campaign against extremist parties. They would still be an assault on free speech and an attack on civil society.
The Bill should contain measures to expose and therefore reduce the pernicious corporate lobbying that happens around elections (and throughout the political year). Not only is it failing at this, it is also proposing to silence the campaigners and activists likely to expose and critique the impacts of corporate lobbying. As such is represents a wide open door for welcoming in further corporate takeover of our democracy.