At a time when Britain’s media lens remains firmly fixed on the outcome of the Scottish referendum, the UK government has quietly pushed through a Lobbying Act that critics claim is highly undemocratic.
Enshrined in law on Friday, the anti-Lobbying Bill raises serious concerns about an ever-increasing democratic deficit in the United Kingdom. The legislation seeks to impose stringent limits on the amount of money think tanks, charities, NGOs, trade unions, and campaign groupscan allocate towards political lobbying during electoral campaigns.
Following its addition to Britain’s statue books, trade unionists and rights activists throughout the nation have condemned the bill, arguing it compromises the political leverage of all UK organisations other than political parties.
Aptly dubbed the Gagging Act, the bill will also drastically reduce the amount of money such organisations can allocate to newspaper advertising, while ensuring they are held accountable for every penny they spend – even on postage stamps.
But no such restrictions will be placed on electioneering propaganda published in newspapers or on political parties’ election spending. In light of this fact, critics argue the legislation is de-facto pro-establishment, allowing UK political parties, particularly the Tories, to continue drawing millions from corporate and financial elites that tend to donate in pursuit of a very specific set of political and economic interests.
The bill surfaced as Parliament broke for the summer, and was debated when MPs returned. Because it effectively silences trade unions and campaign groups across the political spectrum, it has been described by the general secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) as a “chilling attack on free speech.”
Redefining political participation
Awkwardly entitled the ‘Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill’, the legislation will criminalize any attempt by the TUC or other campaign group to organize an annual meeting or national demonstration for an entire year leading up to the 2015 general election. It will achieve this by introducing three primary regulatory changes governing campaigning for non-party organizations.
Firstly, the Act reframes what counts as political campaigning. Previously, only activities initiated with intent to influence electoral results were regulated. But under the new legislation, the government will regulate actions that may affect election results. Because criticism of government policy could influence voters, this legislative change will obstruct UK charities, NGOs and campaign groups’ capacity to criticize Westminister rule during electoral campaigns.
Secondly, the bill reduces the spending limit for non-political party campaigning 12 months prior to an election by over fifty percent. Under the new legislation, such expenditure is confined to a paltry £390,000. When plans to introduce these spending limits first emerged, Labour denounced the proposal as “sinister and partisan.”Nevertheless, they have now been enshrined in law.
Thirdly, the bill factors staff time and menial office costs into its restrictions on spending. Up until now, only the costs of election-oriented materials, adverts and activities were regulated. But under the new bill, staff time along with other costs will be factored into the meager £390,000 limit.
Stamping out dissent
Critics claim this rushed piece of legislation had little to do with cultivating greater transparency in the field of lobbying or eradicating the influence of big business on policy. Rather, they argue it amounts to a crude, biased and politically motivated assault on British democracy – particularly on UK trade unions.
The legislation is so comprehensive, its overall effect is to silence and criminalize dissent 12 months prior to any major election.
According to Labour’s Alexandra Runswick, who also acts as director of Unlock Democracy, the Lobbying Bill is extremely regressive, and will make “transparency and lobbying worse in the UK.”
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, a public service union, sharply criticized the bill, which he described as a “pernicious law.” “It’s cynical, mean and vindictive. Trade unions have always been transparent and truthful about their activities and are already the most over-regulated organizations in the country,” he argued.
The Hope Not Hate campaign, which has played a prominent role in challenging racists, fascists and far-right political figures, warned the Act would reduce its spending by 70 percent leading up to the election.
The Act was initially drawn up to control the lobbying of governments by powerful elites with vested interests, following a “cash-for-favors” scandal in which a Tory MP was implicated. But the British government has been accused of ultimately manipulating the legislation to silence political opponents, and mitigate dissent prior to the 2015 general election.
General union GMB political officer Lisa Johnson said: “With the track record of the government on the economy and living, and with a general election round the corner, it is clear that they want to gag unions and charities too. It is shameful that parliament allowed this legislation onto the statue book. This shoddy and completely impractical bill allows Tory donors and the politically motivated right-wing press to run rough shod over our democracy.”