The Prime Minister was on to something when as Leader of the Opposition he said that lobbying was ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen.’ But the Lobbying Bill’s methods are suspect. It would silence grass roots campaigners while allowing politicians to dictate the terms of debate. It would limit the activity of civil society organisations that stand between the power of the state the freedom of the individual. The Lobbying Bill might be good politics but as it stands it would be bad law.
The bill places a national cap on campaign expenditure from any one non-party organisation or coalition of organisations. It places a constituency-specific cap of £9,750 on such expenditure too. And it forces campaigners to take on a wad of bureaucracy in order to prove that they remain at heel. The proposed demands on campaigners, by the way, are more onerous than those made of political parties.
This arsenal of hyper-regulation is regrettable in and of itself, but the weaponry will fail to hit its targets. The burden would fall disproportionately on grass-roots campaigners and organisations with a legitimate story to tell about their communities or on the issues of the day. Consider the example of anti-HS2 campaigners. Were they to run campaigns against the high speed railway in the same constituency as a pro-HS2 parliamentary candidate during an election year, according to the bill, their spending would be ‘political’ in nature and therefore capped at £9,750 (with the risk of criminal sanctions if they were to spend more). The parliamentary candidate, on the other hand, might call to their aid the Government, its press and policy machine, which, if reports are to be believed, have so far spent £1.2 million on pro-HS2 PR alone.
The lobbying bill steamed through parliament last year, and the Government granted a six week pause for breath only towards the end. The Government last week offered a welcome set of concessions. They raised the limits proposed in the bill at which the red tape kicks in, though did little to affect the constituency limits in particular and the bill’s bureaucracy more generally. This week the lobbying bill reaches its final stages in the Lords and this is the last chance to remove its remaining egregious elements.
Unfettered press, an uncorrupted bar, and a vibrant civil society are, together, the sine qua non of a healthy democracy. The lobbying bill threatens our democracy, but as it stands it threatens our liberty too. The report stage in the Lords, which continues tomorrow, is a huge opportunity for the Lords to protect civil society – and so mitigate the effects of another of the Government’s forays into our freedom.