ConservativeHome features in an advert in the Times and the Telegraph today alongside a range of organisations, raising concerns about the impact of the Lobbying Bill:
It’s fair to say those featured in the advert are politically diverse. As well as us and LabourList, a wide variety of often diametrically opposed organisations have put aside their differences to support the freedom to campaign in the UK.
The Lobbying Bill – and particularly Part 2 of the Bill – is sufficiently problematic that it has succeeded in uniting supporters of Labour and the Conservatives, proponents and opponents of austerity, fox hunters and animal rights campaigners, secularists and religious groups. That they are united against it is a sign of quite how much concern it has caused.
There is a perfectly valid debate to be had about lobbying, and about how best to make politics transparent. But the Bill is so poorly drafted, and its Parliamentary timetable so rushed, that in its current form it poses a real regulatory threat to people who are simply taking part in our national life by campaigning on issues of legitimate concern to them.
Many of us writing for this site, and many of you reading it, have worked hard to build a centre right movement in the UK – inside and outside the Conservative Party. It would be a serious mistake for Parliament to approve a Bill which would bind that movement up in red tape and chill political activism with the fear of prosecution.
Some pushing for the Bill are motivated by a wish to prevent undue corporate influence in politics. Others want to see the Trade Unions’ power curbed. Neither of those aims would be well-served by inadvertently clamping down on grassroots campaign groups, independent think tanks or charities concerned about one issue or another.
It is hard to imagine that any Conservative MP or candidate would support the Bill if they were aware that it could effectively remove their ability to engage with and support campaigns by their constituents. If, in the year before an election, an MP or candidate chose to lend their support to a local anti-wind farm group or an alliance of shopkeepers campaigning for a cut in their rates, the group they were trying to help would become subject to stringent electoral regulations as a direct result of their intervention.
Malicious reporting of any and every group by opponents seeking to use that red tape as a political weapon would follow soon after the first test cases.
I’m sure Ministers don’t intend to make bread and butter politics harder, but the unintended consequence of Part 2 of the Lobbying Bill would be to do so.
In response to these concerns, the Government has given three replies:
- that the Bill isn’t intended to have these negative consequences
- that even if it might have such consequences, the Electoral Commission probably won’t fully enforce it
- that yes, its drafting is unclear, but the existing electoral laws are unclear, too
These arguments are hardly reassuring . We should have learned from 13 years of Labour Government that there are bad people around who can and will stretch any loosely-worded law or polite convention to fit their purposes, given half the chance. We might not abuse excessive powers, but any Government should always consider when legislating whether less moral people might conceivably abuse their laws at a later date. That is a good, Conservative principle of cautious aforethought.
A law which leaves room for negative consequences is a bad law, whether it intends that harm or not. A law that relies on the Electoral Commission failing to enforce its worst elements is a risky law. A law whose poor drafting is justified on the basis that other electoral law is also poorly drafted is an embarrassing law.
A law facing all three of those problems ought to be the subject of a pause, a proper consultation and a serious rethink. I hope the House of Lords will feel the same when the Bill comes before them today for Second Reading.