Lobbying laws: Crude attack on unions
Though in partial retreat, writes Eddie Ford, the government aims to use legislation to further stifle trade union activity and free speech in general
Sneaked out just two days before the Commons rose for the summer in July, the elegantly named Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill was hastily thrown together by the government following numerous ‘cash for access’ scandals. Indeed, from the safety of the opposition benches, David Cameron in 2009 had described access for lobbyists as the “next big political scandal” waiting to happen. His prediction came embarrassingly true this year when the MP for Newark, Patrick Mercer, was forced to resign the government whip on May 31 after boasting to a fake lobbying firm representing ‘Fijian business interests’ that he came “cheap” at £1,000 a day - which was doubtlessly true.
On September 2 parliament approved the legislation in principle by giving it a second reading. However, only four days later the government signalled a partial retreat and is now tabling a series of amendments to the proposed legislation. Now it appears that plans to change the way campaign spending by organisations is defined (or redefined) will be scrapped. But at this stage we still do not know the details or the nature of the concessions, whether trifling or not.
Ostensibly, the lobbying bill was designed to “improve transparency” and “boost public confidence” in the mainstream political process. But, of course - introduced by a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich - it did nothing of the sort. Quite the reverse. The entire legislation seems almost purpose-built to protect corporate and governmental power, but constrain the ability of other less wealthy and powerful bodies to campaign and agitate as they wish - ie, charities and, more importantly still, trade unions.
Under the government’s proposals there will be a statutory register of lobbyists to identify whose interests are being represented by consultant lobbyists and those who were paid to lobby on behalf of a third party - meaning that in theory firms will have to reveal the names of their clients if they have contact with government ministers. In reality though it will hardly amount to a row of beans. If you declare that the main part of your business is something other than lobbying - consultancy, for example - you are not required to join the register; and the same goes if you work directly lobbying for a company. Furthermore, lobbyists can happily meet as many backbench MPs as they like for dinner or late-night drinks and not declare it.
Telling you all you need to know, the practical effect would be that the master of dark political arts, Lynton Crosby - campaign consultant for the Tories since November 2012 - would not be covered. He, of course, runs a huge consultancy company, Crosby Textor Fullbrook (a lobbying firm by any other name), which has its sticky fingers in many corporate pies - including a reported contract with the cigarette firm, Philip Morris International “of around” £6 million.1 By a strange coincidence, in July the government suddenly dropped plans to introduce plain packaging on cigarettes, saying it needed “more evidence” that such a move would lead to a decline in smoking.2 Funny, that.
However, it is an entirely different story when it comes to those who might end up on the receiving end of corporate or government power. For instance, the bill would cut from £989,000 to £390,000 the total amount any ‘third party’ organisation, excluding ‘officially’ recognised political parties, could spend across the UK in the 12 months before a general election - not to mention setting further limits on organisations that campaign for or against a specific party, or target their spending at a particular constituency.
The bill would also, Orwellian-style, broaden the definition of what constitutes ‘election campaigning’, as defined by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000. Potentially any activity could now be deemed to come within the terms of the act if it “affects the outcome” of an election, even if that was not its intended purpose. In other words, nearly any activity or campaign could be viewed - if so wanted - as an attack on the government of the day. Whether that be a campaigning charity like ASH backing election candidates still committed to remove branding from cigarette packages or a non-Labour Party-affiliated union like the PCS trying to influence parliamentary decisions or supporting certain candidates judged favourable to the union’s cause. All could faced legal or financial restrictions.
Trade unions are specifically targeted by the legislation by altering the legal requirements on unions to keep their list of members up to date: thus ending the self-certification of union membership numbers for all but the smallest unions and enabling an ‘independent certification officer’ (appointed by the government, it seems) to check records and take “enforcement action” if necessary. An obvious consequence of such legislation is that the state would have increased powers to interfere in the running of a trade union, in a country which already has laws that are “the most restrictive in the western world” - as Tony Blair once boasted. Quite convincingly, Owen Jones suggests that this new system would be used to “cause havoc” in internal Labour Party selections, as one complaint from the Tories or Lib Dems about a candidate could trigger an inquiry from the ‘certification officer’ about those entitled to take part in the selection process.3
As a matter of fact, the largest ‘third party’ spender in 2010 was Unison - using its monies to fund phone banks, leaflets, adverts, etc backing Labour - something Tory MPs and the rightwing press have bitterly complained about. For them, businesses and the corporate media should decide everything. According to Chloe Smith, minister for constitutional and political reform, “controlled expenditure” by a duly recognised third party would now include expenditure on a “broader range” of activities - such as market research, rallies, press conferences, transport and such-like - in order to ensure that “all relevant campaigning” activity is covered. Given that this ‘broad’ definition includes staff time and general office costs, the TUC has warned - with a touch of justified hyperbole - that it could be forced to cancel its 2014 annual congress and any national demonstrations for that year, otherwise it could breach its spending limit and perhaps leave it open to accusations of organising an illegal gathering (nothing horrifies the respectable British trade union bureaucracy more than the thought of condoning or supporting illegal actions).
Alas, the restrictions do not end there - time for a crackdown. The lobbying bill also proposes that no more than £9,750 can be spent in each constituency in England in the year before a general election - purportedly intended to stop campaigns against specific ministers. If that was not enough, the legislation introduces the concept of “targeted expenditure”, which apparently is a subset of “controlled expenditure”. Therefore, while unions individually can spend £319,800 in England on “controlled expenditure”, they can only spend £31,980 on expenditure ‘targeted’ at a particular political party. A corrupt politican’s charter if ever there was one.
Even worse in some respects, though this aspect of the bill has had far less coverage in the mainstream media, any organisation that spends more than £5,000 on political campaigning (or £2,000 in Scotland and Wales) must register with the electoral commission - if not, then they could possibly be closed down. Made de facto illegal. Naturally, registering with the commission will impose a series of bureaucratic rules and regulations on groups, placing anti-democratic obstacles in the way of campaigning and political work in general. Remember, this is the very same body that in 1995 ruled that the CPGB and the Socialist Party in England and Wales were unable to stand under their own names - the electoral commission having awarded the entire franchise for ‘Communist Party’ over to the dozy social democrats of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and ‘Socialist Party’ to the propagandist SPGB. SPEW ended up with the ‘Socialist Alternative’ moniker.
Anyhow, if this crazy legislation was implemented then the anti-racist campaign group, Hope Not Hate, could find its spending capped, whilst the British National Party - as a bona fide registered political party - would be essentially allowed to spend whatever it liked (perhaps up to nearly £19 million). Political blogs such as Conservative Home and LabourList, to name just two, could be covered by the legislation too, since they are clearly campaigning entities attempting to affect or alter the outcome of a general election - why else would they exist? Even MPs could fall within the bill’s authoritarian remit. Kevin Barron, a senior Labour figure, has pointed out that is “unclear” whether MPs raising concerns to government ministers about ‘non-constituency’ issues like fracking or the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt - even though it would not directly affect their constituents - could be construed as engaging in ‘third party’ lobbying.
Labour has condemned the lobbying legislation as “sinister and partisan” - they are right. Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, considers the bill to be a “crude” attack on the trade unions “worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship”. Perhaps too crude. Many of those broadly supportive of the original legislation are now beginning to find it embarrassing, as indicated by the September 6 amendments - even on its own terms it is obviously an atrocious and illogical piece of legislation.
Just think soberly about the legislation for a second. For instance, does the government really want to hobble Hope Not Hate’s anti-BNP campaign work? Not in the slightest. HNH’s thoroughly liberalistic, popular-frontist understanding and approach to anti-racism chimes almost perfectly with the institutional anti-racism of the bourgeois state itself. No wonder that the chairman of the committee tasked with scrutinising the bill, Labour MP Graham Allen, said it was “rushed and ridiculous” - a total “dog’s breakfast”, in fact.
Sentiments repeated by the electoral commission, whose job it is to interpret and enforce the law. In a withering but half-despairing analysis sent to every MP, the EC explains that it was not consulted on the bill that came like a bolt from the blue. It thinks it allows “far too much discretion” in interpreting what constitutes ‘political campaigning’, so decisions are bound to be challenged in court. The various controls and restrictions “will be impossible to enforce”, argues the commission, and warns that the activities classified as ‘electoral’ could mushroom exponentially - rallies, events, media work, polling research, transport, blogs, websites, articles, etc. Where will it end? For the EC bureaucrats in their offices, the complexities and contradictions of the legislations are beginning to look nightmarish.
Yes, thankfully, the government now seems to be backtracking - the deluge of criticism has become too much. After talks with the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, a slightly shame-faced Andrew Lansley, the Commons leader, agreed that changes to the legislation had to be made. It is understood that the government will offer to remove some of the more controversial clauses, especially the ones stating - or at least heavily implying - that charitable and other non-party campaigning could count as ‘election campaigning’ if it procured success for a particular candidate, even if that was not the intention. Sources close to Nick Clegg said the amendments would mean no extra charities or ‘third parties’ would be caught by the restrictions - the government reverting to the existing legislation, which defines “controlled expenditure” as spending “which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success” (my emphasis).
Even with these concessions, the lobbying bill will still mean ‘third parties’ are subject to tougher restrictions on political campaigning than before. The main purpose of the bill will remain, whatever amendments are made. It is primarily intended as an assault on trade union funding and free speech in general, and must be strongly resisted.
Once again, we see the stunted and limited nature of democracy under capitalism - any gains we have made can always be snatched away from us if we are not sufficiently strong and organised. Just as importantly, it shows the need for working class independence - we want to keep the bourgeois state off our backs and out of our organisations.
1. The Observer July 21.
2. The Guardian July 23.
3. The Independent September 1.