I sometimes wonder if the political class in this country think the Electorate are basically thick, because there really can't be any other explanation for the content of the draft Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill.
Described by the TUC as "an outrageous attack on freedom of speech worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship" a press release explains:-
The Bill makes three changes to the regulation of campaigning by non-party organisation in the 12 months before a general election. Breaching these will become a criminal offence. The three changes are:
* Changing the definition of what counts as campaigning. At present only activities designed with the intent of influencing an election result are regulated. The Bill will instead regulate activity that may affect the result of an election. As any criticism of government policy could affect how people vote, this will severely limit any organisation's ability to criticise government policies in the run up to an election - not just unions, but charities, NGOs and local campaign groups too.
* Reducing the spending limit for third party campaigners to £390,000. The amount that third party campaign groups can spend in the year before an election is reduced by more than half to £390,000.
* Including staff time and office costs in expenditure limits. Presently only the costs of election directed materials and activities such as leaflets and advertisements are regulated.
The Bill proposes that staff time and other costs should now be included in the limit.
As the costs of all organisations involved in an event are added together and this total counts against the limit for each group involved, the TUC's 2014 Congress, or a national demonstration, would not just take the TUC over the annual limit but each member union. While the TUC's Congress will be regulated, political party conferences are given an exemption in election spending limits.
TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady said: "It's an open secret at Westminster that this rushed Bill has nothing to do with cleaning up lobbying or getting big money out of politics. Instead it is a crude and politically partisan attack on trade unions, particularly those who affiliate to the Labour Party.
"But it has been drawn so widely that its chilling effect will be to shut down dissent for the year before an election. No organisation that criticises a government policy will be able to overdraw their limited ration of dissent without fearing a visit from the police.
The Bill was published as Parliament broke up for the summer, and is to be debated as soon as MPs return with a second reading on 3 September. The Committee stage will take place on the floor of the House the week after - the same time as the TUC's 2013 Congress.
The government has broken pledges that the lobbying bill would be published in draft form and subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Select Committee. Even though the restrictions on third party campaigning make the Bill a constitutional measure, there has been no consultation process or cross-party talks.
It's not just the TUC that smell a rat in this shabby bill. 38 Degrees, the brilliantly successful campaigning group, think the bill is aimed at reigning in their activities as well:-
The government’s rushing through a new law which, if it passes, will stop us running the type of campaigns which have made us who we are. The campaigns which have saved our forests, fought privatisation in the NHS, and defeated the snoopers' charter. The campaigns which have seen 1.7 million of us act together, locally and nationally, for over four years. In fact, if the new law passes, and we continue campaigning as we do now, the office team could even risk being sent to jail.
The law's called the 'Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill'. And if it goes through without any changes, it’ll wipe out our campaigning by slashing what we can spend during the year before elections. Not just general elections, either. Local elections, European elections and referendums, too.
People power is at the heart of 38 Degrees. We don't spend too much, but our campaigns do cost money. Without being able to spend - employing staff, buying billboards, or printing leaflets about where politicians stand on local issues - we just won’t be able to make the issues which matter to us all, like the NHS and fair taxation, top of the agenda at the next election.
The three main political parties have a combined membership of around 433,000. There are 1.7 million of us. Per member, the parties would be able to spend over £130 - 38 Degrees would be able to spend around 23p. Put simply, this will make it hard to influence the next election, and every one after that.
It’s not clear whether this law is just badly written, or if the government is simply fed up of being criticised - but it’s a huge threat. And it doesn’t only affect us: from big charities to tiny single-issue campaigns, the sector is scared and furious.
The government’s trying to slip this through with as little fuss as possible. Not only did they introduce it on the day before MPs knocked off for the summer, they also tied it into a whole raft of other new rules on lobbying. And some of the new rules, like the register of lobbyists, are things we’ve been pushing for, although they’re not yet strong enough. We still hope to campaign for tighter controls on dodgy lobbying - but before that, we have to fight to make sure we're not silenced during elections.
I'm pretty clear that the political class are rattled by the power of the internet and organisations like 38 Degrees ability to mount campaigns. The old political party system is waning and politicians of all persuasions don't like it. If we'd have woken up to the changes in democratic processes earlier, I think we might have been able to stop the privatisation of probation.
We didn't though and there was too little time for a campaign to gain traction involving a little-known and understood public service, in stark contrast to the reaction over possible privatisation of the Fire Service. Too late for us, but lets make sure it's not too late for other campaigns. Join 38 Degrees or write to the minister involved, Chloe Smith MP. A comprehensive list of other great campaigns can be found here.
PS As reported in Civil Society today, major charities are concerned and have written to the minister through NCVO.