Gagging Bill protester/38 Degrees
“Every election is a referendum. The winner is the person who sets the question”.
This mantra, passed from campaign manager to campaign manager down the generations, is key to understanding how political communication works. You don’t win by having the best answer. You win by setting the question.
Again and again in this election we see this from the Tory-media complex. And perhaps the most profound example has been the series of letters, co-ordinated by the Conservative Campaign HQ, in which business bosses tell us that we must support the Tories for the sake of the economy. These missives have acted as vertebrae studded up the spine of Osborne’s campaign: holding it up, keeping it straight. They’ve ensured that the media has a series of new ‘events’ to talk about, relating to their one core subject, the economy. It's not that they make detailed arguments about national economic strategy, never mind that they win those arguments. It's enough that they ensure we are talking about it: it's the one major area where voters trust the Tories more.
The grip of CCHQ over the debate in this election is in part a product of the ownership of our media, in part a question of Britain’s traditional old boys’ networks, and in part a consequence of the power of money on our broader political infrastructure. But it can also, to a significant extent, be pinned down to one piece of legislation: a law which received Royal Assent on the 30th of January 2014, specifically designed to muffle the voices of the voiceless.
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 or, “The Gagging Act” to its friends, was first mooted as a solution to a problem which really does exist. Paid lobbyists attempting to be the back seat drivers of our government undermine democracy and have delivered more than one scandal in recent years. The Act, though, does nothing to deal with them.
What it has done instead is gag civil society in the run up to the election. By restricting the ability to say anything which may be interpreted as favouring or disadvantaging any major party, it’s preventing charities and NGOs from raising vital questions. It’s stopping them from broadening the focus of the vote from that chosen by the Tories and their pet journalists to the daily worries of the most vulnerable in our society.
Perhaps the most damaging element of it is that, if a particular policy is more associated with one party than with others, then you’re covered by the Lobbying Act. As one staffer at a prominent charity said to me, “if UKIP denies climate change, does that mean you are disadvantaging them by saying that it’s a problem? If you’re concerned about inequality, does that mean you’re unfairly helping Labour if you mention it?”.
I’ve spoken to a number of people across the voluntary sector, discussing the effect of the legislation. Every conversation started the same way: neither individuals nor organisations wanted to be identified for fear of reprisal - including from an increasingly politicised Charity Commission. But they all told me the same thing.
Again and again, senior staff at major charities and NGOs said that the Lobbying Act is stopping them from doing what they see as their jobs. For months now, they told me, it’s been raised at almost every meeting they’ve had with their partner organisations. Large charities with legal teams are spending valuable resource on getting every statement cross-checked. Small charities, those, say, who represent people with particular illnesses, can’t afford to do this. And so too often, they say nothing at all.
There are some stark examples. Five years ago, the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition ran a major campaign calling on the millions of members of their various organisations to “ask the climate question” at hustings or on the doorstep. Many did, influencing the election in a range of ways. This time round, the big issue is fracking. However, as one person involved told me, they “had to make a decision that they wouldn’t say or do anything on fracking during the election period.”
I’m told that another charity, one which supports people with a common and life changing illness, used to organise hustings in general elections - giving patients and their families a chance to grill candidates about what they would do. This time around, they’ve not done so. They believe that the Lobbying Act prohibits it, though the law is so badly drafted that they aren’t sure, and can’t afford the lawyers to prove it.
Huge numbers of Lib Dem MPs represent seats with significant student populations. Given the anger at their capitulation on fees, you can imagine how students’ unions might have been encouraging their members to ask awkward questions in recent weeks. Many have speculated that it was this fear which motivated the party to back an astoundingly illiberal prohibition on the freedom to speak in the weeks before the vote.
This level of uncertainty about the law is also a common theme. Some groups have reacted to it more boldly, choosing to interpret the legislation narrowly and almost daring the Charity or Electoral Commission to tackle them. Others are cautious, perhaps overly so, fearing reprisals if they do overstep some as yet undefined line and find themselves in trouble. The overall effect, though, is notable.
When we compare all of this to the prominent role played by those business letters, it becomes even starker. Businesses aren’t restricted by the legislation. They are free to act as proxies for the Tories. Charities, of course, wouldn’t be permitted to react in kind - it’s long been illegal for them to endorse a political party. But, as one senior campaigner at a major anti-poverty charity put it to me, “It’s galling to see the heads of the biggest, richest organisations in the UK speaking out, but those who represent the poorest and most vulnerable are not able to speak out.”
The de-politicisation of charities and NGOs is a much longer story than this one Act. In 2011, I wrote about how Labour had encouraged charities to become dependent on state funding for service delivery, and how this sweetened milk had rotted their teeth ahead of the battle against austerity, had made them unable to bite the hand that now fed them. But if the once powerful beasts of our civil society were made soft by Labour, they have been caged by the Coalition.
The impact is profound. The organisations which exist to speak up for the most vulnerable have been gagged by politicians who knew what they they would tell us in this election if only they could. The spokespeople for the rich and powerful have a bigger podium than ever, but the representatives of the oppressed have had the soap box kicked from under them, just when those they represent needed it most.
Every election is a referendum. The winner is the person who sets the question. And if you fear that the people might want to talk about something other than what you want them to talk about, pass a law banning civil society from asking awkward questions.
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