Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill 2013-14, often called the ‘gagging law’, received a wide constellation of criticism. According to Andrew Lansley MP, Leader of the House of Commons:
The Transparency Bill has three key aims: to make it clear who is lobbying the Government and for whom; to make third-party campaigning at election times subject to clear rules; and to provide assurance that trade unions know who their members are.
The statutory register is only for “consultant lobbyists”, who must lobby “on behalf of another person or persons”. Lobbyists employed directly by a company do not have to register. Alexandra Runswick, the director of Unlock Democracy, said this definition “exempted more than 80% of the £2bn lobbying industry from having to comply with the register”. Merely registering a minority of lobbyists does not meaningfully erode lobbying’s murkiness.
The Bill’s second part concerns non-party campaigning, with controls on expenditure on ‘election material’ that “can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success” for parties and candidates, in the year proceeding an election. Such activities are regulated even if “it does not involve any express mention being made of the name of any part or candidate”. Any organisation spending more than £5,000 in England, or more than £2,000 in other parts of the UK, must now register with the Electoral Commission. Once these thresholds are met, the limits on what campaigners can spend on regulated activity in the year before an election has been reduced by over 60%, to £320,000 in England, £35,000 in Scotland, £24,000 in Wales and £11,000 in Northern Ireland. What counts towards this spending has dramatically widened. There are also new controls on spending that has a “significant effect” in different constituencies.
The Electoral Commission states: “We are also concerned that the constituency controls in the Bill may be unenforceable within the timescales of an election, particularly if potential breaches occur in the last few weeks of the campaign.” The Commission also highlights the cases of public rallies and pledge card campaigns, which would push organisations over the registration threshold. The new spending limits will restrict fair campaigns, such as the NUS’s vengeance against sitting MPs who voted to increase university tuition fees, in spite of pledges not to do so. Merely publicising a candidate’s view on a policy matter – even if it’s just a short supportive quote – will render a leaflet, magazine or website to be an ‘election material’. Thus, partial spending towards its production will be regulated. Policy analysis and reports may also satisfy the ‘election material’ test, if produced in the election year.
The third of this Bill ensures trades’ unions must have their membership records veritably inspected every year. There is already a legal requirement for trades’ unions to keep accurate membership lists. This law need only be enforced.
The tripartite Bill is wholly inadequate, attempting to solve hypothetical problems over “US-style Super-PACs” whilst ignoring concerns over in-house lobbying. The Transparency Bill offers only opacity.