“Campaigning is an essential part of a healthy democratic society which allows people the freedom of expression to speak out and actively challenge the status quo.”
“Without citizens taking up campaigns, it would be much more difficult to force opinion formers to focus on issues that people care about. It is a crowded field with politicians, media and other opinion formers.”
These are the words of George Osborne and Nick Clegg, five years before they became Chancellor of the Exchequer and Deputy Prime Minister respectively in the UK Coalition Government. They were written for a report for the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK), launched in 2005 with the specific purpose of offering support to campaigners.
Such support as opposition MPs is a far cry from the attacks we have witnessed in the past year on civil society voices that seek to influence political debate.
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which is being debated in the House of Lords this week, proposes changes to the way third parties campaign in the year leading up to an election. The proposals include changes to the overall spending limits on campaigning activities (cut by around 60 per cent in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland); restrictions on the type of activities that are included in these spending limits; and constituency spending limits which charities and campaigners would be required to observe. A proposal on staff cost restrictions has particularly worried some charities and organisations, for many of whom it would be a bureaucratic nightmare. Late proposals from Ministers to make the Bill more acceptable in the Lords have included reducing the period for which the time limits apply from 12 months to seven and a half months, and exempting smaller charities. But there remain deep concerns, constituency spending and staff costs to name but a few.
Threat to civil society
Civil society voices are the foundation of a healthy and lively democracy, and while the Bill has put the activities of these organisations under the spotlight, it has left unchallenged the world of corporate lobbying. The power this wields over the democratic decision-making process remains as uncontrolled and opaque as ever.
SMK has been working with a diverse coalition of organisations ranging from the National Secular Society to Christian Aid to campaign against Part 2 of the Bill. This wide range of organisations calling, at the very least, for extensive amendments to the Bill demonstrates the threat it poses to civil society. Despite fears of the detrimental impact Part 2 would have in silencing charities and preventing other civil society groups from speaking out on key issues of injustice and other public concerns, the Bill was rushed through.
But Part 2 follows Part 1 and the two must be viewed in conjunction. The Bill, the Government had said, was intended to clean up politics and lobbying, including by setting up a transparent register of lobbyists. But while Part 2 would effectively silence the voice of civil society for months before an election, Part 1 as currently formulated fails to tackle the lobbying scandals the Government had promised it would address.
Introduced to “restore trust and confidence in the political system”, the Bill dismally fails to do that. Part 1 defines who is and who is not a lobbyist, and concludes that mandatory registration should apply only to “consultant lobbyists” and not, for example, to in-house lobbyists. And there is no mention of a code of conduct for those who lobby decision-makers. By casting its net so narrowly, it ignores the very lobbyists that dominate Parliament, the “other opinion formers” that Nick Clegg mentioned in 2005 as crowding out the campaigning citizens.
Think back to News Corp’s lobbying on the BSkyB bid. It would be unaffected by this Bill. As would the meetings between the alcohol industry and ministers about minimal alcohol pricing. In October 2012, a Guardian editorial noted that “the triumphant result [of the Bill] is that the drinks colossus Diageo as an example, could go on meeting junior ministers and special advisers to argue against, say, minimum pricing for alcohol, while Alcohol Concern (annual income, less than £1m) would have to jump through a chilling series of hoops in order to take part in any kind of campaigning.”
Research from the Association of Professional Political Consultants reveals that of the 988 meetings between lobbyists and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2012; the register proposed in Part 1 of the Bill would have captured fewer than 1 per cent. “it is a bad bill which actually undermines the goal of increased lobbying transparency,” the organization concluded.
A failure on all fronts
Should the Government not prioritise the huge amount of money pumped into the political arena by the private and financial sector day on day and year on year over the far smaller amount spent by charities in the lead-up to elections?
For example, in 2011 the British financial sector spent £92m lobbying politicians and regulators. The voluntary EU lobbying register shows that the pharmaceutical industry spend €40 million annually lobbying the EU, compared to €3.4 million by civil society organisations.
We should all be concerned about a Government-created lobbying register that will fail on all fronts, especially when those who must contend with the corporate lobbyists are campaigners with few resources who are simultaneously being silenced.
George Osborne believed in 2005 that campaigning and political engagement are critical to a “healthy democratic society”. A recent Hansard Audit of Social Engagement noted that third-party campaigns increase interest in elections, can increase voter turnout, and draw otherwise disenfranchised citizens into the democratic process.” When so many citizens feel cut off from politics, politicians and the political process, these must surely be good things.
We are witnessing nothing short of the deliberate dismantling of the rights of those who want to take action on injustice and inequality – from the lobbying bill to changes to judicial review and the recent Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill (which could have seen a disturbing crack down on “nuisance” behaviour and the use of public spaces). Running parallel to this is a world of corporate lobbying and big money; a world that government has failed to clean up while it continues to corrupt politics. In the face of this, it is important for people to continue to stand up and have their voices heard on issues that matter. Grassroots campaigns often run on sheer persistence and grit and determination (from the Save Lewisham Hospital to the Hillsborough Justice campaign and countless other examples). They remind us that people on the ground across the country continue to inspire remarkable and positive changes.