By Mark Wallace
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In the spirit of open debate, ConHome has just published an article in support of the Lobbying Bill by Rob Wilson MP and Alun Cairns MP (you can read it here). It's a response to my piece this morning about why we are concerned about the Bill's potentially damaging impact not just on the blogosphere but on charities and democratic involvement in the UK.
I thought it would be worth raising a few points about the MPs' article now rather than drag the debate out:
- Just because the Left don't like something doesn't mean we should support it. It's true that the Guardian, a barrister from Cherie Blair's chambers, Owen Jones, the TUC and 38 Degrees have criticised the Bill. They may all be often irritating, but that doesn't make them wrong. That they are lined up alongside ConHome, the TPA, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute and Margaret Thatcher's thinktank the Centre for Policy Studies shows that this is not a left or right wing issue. In fact, the fact that there is such a broad coalition of opposition to the Bill should make the Government consider that they may have got this one wrong.
- This isn't about corporate lobbyists, it's about anyone who wants to campaign about any issue that might be deemed political. Wilson and Cairns seem to think we are ignoring the first part of the Bill, which affects professional lobbyists – we aren't, in fact we've run articles debating the issues it raises. What we object to is the second part of the Bill, which has been tacked on without consultation and threatens to drag hundreds of organisations into a searching regulatory regime purely for taking part in the democratic process.
- Government assurances matter a lot less than what the Bill actually says. The MPs' article cites the line that Ministers are taking in the Bill's defence – "the intention behind the legislation is clear and sensible". In translation, this means that we should take the Government's word for what they intend to do with this new system, even though several different legal opinions suggest that the Bill does indeed contain the powers we are warning about. Even if today's Government would never use these powers, as they claim, it is a bad principle to create powers which future Governments or Electoral Commission administrations might choose to use in a damaging way. If the Government's intentions differ from what their Bill says, then it is a poorly drafted Bill and should be rewritten.
- ConservativeHome is a campaigning blog, not a newspaper. "Where a blog is simply posting comment pieces they are exempt in the same way newspapers are," write Cairns and Wilson. This is a misleading comparison – we are an explicitly partisan site (the clue is in the name), we campaign online, we organise conferences, give profile to ideas and people and view it as part of our mission to help there to be a majority Conservative government after 2015. For that matter, it isn't quite clear why under these rules a national newspaper which frontpages "VOTE FOR X" would be exempt from regulation, whilst a local community campaign against a bypass would be subject to the new rules.
There is growing concern among the Conservative Parliamentary Party over the unintended consequences and poor drafting of the Bill. While many MPs were initially tempted by the idea that 38 Degrees, a serial bugbear, would be inconvenienced, they don't want to see the Countryside Alliance or their local anti-wind farm groups struck down at the same time.
Good law is clear, seeks to foresee the risk of harmful consequences and is drafted with the potential for future abuse or misinterpration in mind. The Lobbying Bill is none of those things.