We’re all in it together – but not in the way you might think

I went on my first demonstration when I was seven.

It was 1992 and John Major’s government had announced yet more education cuts. I lived in a small town where no-one had very much really and this was yet another thing in a long line of off-the-cuff policies that restricted potential and kept us in our place.

So we took to the streets. I clutched my mother’s hand as we huddled in the shadow of the war memorial in the centre of town, others holding lanterns and homemade banners. We sang hymns and clapped our hands. My memory of my first foray into activism is fairly foggy, but I can quite imagine that the local policeman stopped by to have a chat and a cup of weak tea. Beyond tame, particularly when you consider the far more impressive story told by one of my schoolfriends of being held aloft during the poll tax riots.

My point here, other than indulging my own memories of a precocious childhood, is that while the bobble-hat wearing, banner-toting group of locals in that small Somerset town didn’t even come close to stopping the tide of cuts which crashed over us so forcefully in the weeks and months that followed, we had stood up for what we believed in. Everyone wrote letters to the Education Secretary, (including me, receiving a broadly sympathetic but generally patronising response a month later) and spoke to the local MP.

Why had we taken the time to protest? Because education was, and still is, one of a number of hugely important political issues which quite rightly define the outcomes of elections. After all, democracy is about being free to question and speak out on the issues that concern you, whether you agree with the Government of the day or not.

Last week, MPs voted to plough on with the ‘Transparency, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration’ Bill, or the Lobbying Bill. It was introduced a couple of days before the summer parliamentary recess and aims to crack down on illicit influencing of politicians by introducing a ‘Register of Lobbyists’. This all sounds pretty positive – as a lobbyist myself, I’m frankly disgusted that so-called corporate ‘in-house lobbyists’ can lay on the hospitality, tip those in power the wink and pave the way for big business to get what it wants.

The thing is, it would be perfectly understandable if illegal lobbying by corporates was the main focus of the Bill – although incidentally, the Register of Lobbyists bit doesn’t go far enough as it only deals with the lobbying of Government Ministers and their Permanent Secretaries by lobbying consultants, whereas MPs, Peers and Special Advisers are still fair game – but it isn’t. The Bill has two other parts, dealing with ‘non-party campaigning etc’ and trade unions respectively, which is when things start to get slightly sinister.

Part Two of the Bill introduces new, strict rules which will very likely impose significant restrictions on the campaigning of organisations like Tearfund, as well as much smaller organisations and community groups, such as churches, for the twelve months leading up to a General Election. Our expenditure on awareness-raising activities like media and events would now be covered, as well as logistical things like transport and the costs of employing our staff.  The Bill also lowers how much organisations can spend on these activities by 60%-70% – if we spend more, we could face prosecution if these activities are deemed to be ‘for election purposes’. A little will now have to go a very long way. On top of that, the Government plans to aggregate the spending of campaigning coalitions (like the IF campaign), so every involved organisation or agency will likely have to account for the spending of the whole. The upshot? It’s not just the big organisations that will be affected, grassroots campaigners might also feel the force of the Bill’s bile too. In fact you could say (if this goes ahead), we’ll all be in it together. Ironic, really.

Let’s be clear, there are existing rules on non-party campaigning, namely the ‘Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000’ (PPERA). This means that UK charities, NGOs and other voluntary organisations can’t engage in election-bending activities like the so-called US super-PACs. Thanks to the new legislation, in-house corporate lobbyists will still be able to have their quiet dinners and behind-closed-door chats in those all-important pre-election months, while civil society will be restricted by how much we can call the Government up about it. In short, as it stands, the Bill won’t clean up politics or properly right the wrongs we’d hoped it would.

21 years after my first demonstration, I’ve lost count of the number of campaign cards I’ve signed, events I’ve organised, protests I’ve attended. I’ve seen ground-breaking policy change (the Arms Trade Treaty anyone, 0.7, debt cancellation?) and I’m only one person. What would it mean if we all stopped taking legitimate action because we were worried about breaking the rules or getting the organisations we support into trouble?

Today, MPs will be taking part in the first of three days of Committee Stage of the Bill. This will be heard as a Committee of the Whole House in the Main Chamber, rather than in a Public Bill Committee of a few MPs poring over the Bill line-for-line. With the Prime Minister’s G20 statement and a tribute debate to Prince George on the agenda preceding it, the opportunity for discussion during day one of Committee Stage looks like it’ll be limited. Right now, from where I’m standing, it all seems pretty bleak.

Want to take action? Click here for a Tearfund Nudge.

A briefing on the Lobbying Bill is here.

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