In the traditional model of a liberal democracy, civil society comes together to put pressure on the government to take action on issues of public concern. A new paper from the Institute of Economic Affairs Sock Puppets: How the government lobbies itself and why today argues that the tables are being turned and that there has been a growing tendency in the past fifteen years for state-funded pressure groups to masquerade as civil society, thereby creating the illusion of grass-roots support for policies which the public views with ambivalence if not hostility. The government is effectively lobbying itself, and lobbying us.
It is well documented that the European Commission has for years been funding dozens of environmental groups who lobby MEPs and promote EU policy at a grass-roots level. It also gives substantial sums of money to groups such as the Young European Federalists and the International Union of Socialist Youth, although we can find no evidence of similar grants being given to Eurosceptics or radical free marketeers.
In Britain, the Department of Health is a serial offender. In the past year alone, public funds have been used to actively promote minimum pricing, plain packaging of cigarettes and a ban on alcohol sponsorship. A casual visitor to campaigning websites such as www.minimumpricing.info and http://www.d-myst.info/ could be forgiven for assuming that they were set up by concerned citizens rather than by bureaucrats in the health service. While they solicit signatures for petitions to put pressure on the government, there is no acknowledgement that these websites are entirely publicly funded, nor that they were created by an arm of government.
If a government department believes that new legislation would be beneficial, it is of course within its rights to make the policy case and persuade us, but there is something unsettling about doing this anonymously or through supposedly independent third parties. A significant part of Britain’s charitable sector now devotes itself to campaigning for legislation, with organisations involved in foreign aid, public health and environmentalism being particularly vocal. Charities have every right to air their views, but many of them would not exist – or would exist on a shoestring budget – were it not for the largesse of the state.
27,000 charities rely on statutory funding for more than three-quarters of their income and, since 2008, charities have received more money from the government (including the Lottery) than they received in donations from individuals. Although this arguably devalues the concept of charity as voluntary action, there is nothing inherently wrong with the government outsourcing public services to those who have the knowledge and passion to carry them out more effectively. The problem is that some of these charities have an extraordinarily broad remit – often involving ‘raising awareness’ – which is indistinguishable from lobbying.
Amongst the numerous activist groups which have received significant funding from the state in recent years are Sustain, the Green Alliance, Alcohol Concern, the Child Poverty Action Group, the War on Want, the Women’s Environmental Network, Action on Smoking and Health, the London Sustainability Exchange, Forum for the Future, Consensus Action on Salt and Health, the Fatherhood Institute, the Fawcett Society, the Pesticide Action Network, the Climate Group and the Equality Challenge Unit. A non-exhaustive list of the causes championed by these organisations includes universal free school meals, the Robin Hood tax, ‘traffic light’ labelling on food, ‘environmental justice’, signing up to the EU’s Working Time Directive, ‘justice for Palestine’, 20 mph speed limits, lowering the voting age to 16, and minimum pricing for alcohol, as well as bans on battery farmed chickens, ‘junk food’ advertising, numerous pesticides, incandescent light bulbs, alcohol advertising, and smoking in private vehicles. In some cases, the campaigning is incidental to the group’s charitable purpose, but in others it is difficult to see what services the charity provides beyond policy development and lobbying.
At best, this is a modern form of patronage in which politicians and bureaucrats lavish money on like-minded pressure groups who then make the policy case to the public. At worst, it is the government talking to itself because it doesn’t like what the great unwashed have to say. Aside from being a waste of taxpayers’ money, this system of state-funded activism subverts the democratic process and marginalises genuine civil society.
It is also inherently unstable. It is entirely possible that a future administration could withdraw its funding from the charities favoured by the Blair-Brown government and divert taxpayers’ money towards right-wing pressure groups, libertarian think-tanks, free trade associations and advocates of privatisation. Or it might choose to spend millions of pounds amplifying the voices of religious charities, pro-life groups, cigar aficionados, gun-owners or any other group that it decides is ‘underrepresented’ in civil society. We would not see that as an improvement. The merit or demerit of the causes espoused is not the issue. Taxpayers’ money should not be used to lobby for policies with which the taxpayer may profoundly disagree. Civil society should, by definition, be independent of government. In recent years that distinction has become blurred. This new paper explains how that happened and what can be done about it.