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DoubleAlun Cairns is the Member of Parliament for Vale of Glamorgan and Rob Wilson is the Member of Parliament for Reading East.

Today ConservativeHome
reported on the opposition from the Left to the new Lobbying Bill, which also covers trade unions and election campaigning by
organisations which are not political parties, such as charities and campaign
groups.

The Guardian had reported on the opinion of one barrister from the
radical chambers founded by Cherie Blair that the Bill will have a “chilling effect
on freedom of expression” by charities and third sector organisations. The
Leftist commentator Owen Jones warned that the Bill “will crush democratic
freedoms”, endorsing the TUC’s verdict that the bill is something “worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship”.
The online campaign group 38 Degrees has been getting its followers to write to
MPs claiming that the Bill threatens a “vital part of British democracy. It would
gag campaigning from much-loved charities and community groups for the entire
year before a general election
.”


Never
mind the fact that the Bill brings in a statutory register of consultant lobbyists
for the first time, enabling people to see on whose behalf the lobbyists who
meet ministers and civil servants are working. This new register will cover
around 700 lobbying organisations and will put the onus on Ministers to answer
for their contacts. And never mind that the Bill will force trade unions to at
least maintain accurate membership records before claiming a democratic mandate
from their members for hugely inconvenient strikes.

This
morning, ConHome formally added its backing to many of these concerns, echoing
38 Degrees’ warning that the Bill threatens to restrict the free speech of the “third party groups who
contribute so much to the vibrancy of our democracy”. Specifically ConHome
is concerned that the Bill “is so loose in its language and so vague in its
drafting that anyone who spends over £5,000 on anything that can be in any way
said to potentially affect an election will be caught up in the rules it lays
out.

The first point to note is that the Government has made
it clear that organisation campaigning only on policy issues will
continue to be exempt from regulation. But third party campaigns which promote or
enhance the standing and prospects of parties or candidates should be fully
recorded and disclosed.  I think most of
us can envisage where the distinction would lie. The Bill will require third parties spending over £5,000 – not an
insignificant sum of money – on campaigning material with election purposes to
register their spending with the Electoral Commission so it can be made open
and transparent.

Vague
warnings about third party groups getting “caught up in the rules” and suggestions
that they will end up being “bombarded with
paperwork and the fear of prosecution” are overblown. The intention
behind the legislation is clear and sensible. As with almost all legislation,
uncertainties about the practical application will be ironed out as the Bill
passes through Parliament and will be further clarified in the regulations and
practical guidance.

Others
have raised objection to the changes to third party spending limits. As the
Guardian breathlessly claimed, the Bill “not
only slashes this limit to £390,000, but also broadens the definition of what
counts as spending”.
In fact, only two third party groups went over the
newly proposed spending limit for third parties at the 2010 general election.
One was UNISON – whose political affiliations and ambitions are obvious. The
other was “Vote for a Change Ltd”, a now dissolved company whose directors
included prominent Left-wing activists, and which spent over half a million
pounds advising people on how to vote tactically in each constituency
to bring about a hung parliament and hinder the prospects of a Conservative
majority.

Again,
it seems reasonable and sensible to reduce the influence of outside money on
politics and our elections.

ConHome
is also concerned, as David Allen Grenn has argued, that “unless the government re-thinks its proposals,
then a number of bodies – such as Conservative Home – are going to be caught up
in misconceived and illiberal legal regime."
Mark Wallace adds
that the Bill risks strangling the blogosphere
in regulatory red tape. This is simply wrong. Where a blog is simply
posting comment pieces they are exempt in the same way newspapers are. If a
blog was helping to promote electoral success by, for example encouraging
support for a particular party (organising campaign activity, or taking out an
internet ad saying ‘vote x’) then they may be covered.

Getting the balance right on lobbying and campaigning is difficult. But
ordinary people don’t want to see our political system in the pockets of
corporate donors, shadowy lobbyists, or overly powerful campaign groups or
trade unions bent on pursuing particular agendas. ConHome is right to argue
that every aspect of life can be
political in one way or another, but wrong to say that we can’t distinguish
between what should properly be regarded as party political campaigning and
people’s concerns about particular policies and decisions. The measures in the
Lobbying Bill deserve constructive discussion and engagement, not hysteria.

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