THE BLOG

Labour Must Repeal the Gagging Law

03/02/2014 14:39 GMT | Updated 05/04/2014 10:59 BST

With the Government finally bulldozing its controversial Lobbying Bill through Parliament, charities and campaign groups have spent the past few days taking stock of the full horror of the attack on democracy, and are calling on the Labour Party to commit to its repeal.

It takes a lot to unite organisations like the pro-fox hunting Countryside Alliance and the League Against Cruel Sports together, but the Government's Lobbying Bill did just that.

The 'gagging law' (Part 2 of the verbosely titled 'Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Part Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Act), is one of the most deeply unpopular laws to be passed by this Government. Over 130 charities and campaign groups, representing millions of people, came together to oppose the move to silence them ahead of elections.

A commission was set up, ably chaired by Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, which produced two damning reports that helped shape the Parliamentary debates.

Ministers were forced to concede some important changes to the Bill, including exempting the smallest spending organisations from regulation, and shortening the regulatory period from twelve months to seven and a half for the 2015 General Election.

But frustratingly, key changes made in the House of Lords were rejected by MPs. And the nail-biting final vote in the House of Lords, to improve the Bill, was a draw - which meant that the amendment fell, and the Government won.

So why did the Coalition launch this full on confrontation and risk alienating charities with such terrible legislation? It is very hard to escape the conclusion that this law was designed to counter Liberal Democrat and Conservative fears of being criticised for unpopular policies ahead of the general election. In a tightly fought campaign it would be very inconvenient to have NUS opposing tuition fees, Cancer Research UK calling for plain-packaged cigarettes, and Friends of the Earth opposing home insulation schemes being slashed whilst fuel bills are soaring.

It is simply inconceivable that any of the charities and campaigning groups involved in this campaign would tell their supporters how they should vote. Our role is to tell it how we see it on key policy issues that, yes, sometimes become politically contentious.

Under the new law campaigning on politically contentious issues - even if a political party or candidates isn't mentioned, and even if it is not the intention to enhance the electoral prospects of one side or another - can fall foul of new, extremely tight, spending limits. Limits that political parties don't have to comply with.

The full implications of the law will only be known once the Electoral Commission publishes guidance in the next few months. But it is clear that with total spending limits more than halved in England, and tight new spending limits of under £10,000 (including staff costs) introduced for constituencies, a lot of bread and butter campaigning will now be illegal ahead of elections.

The Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, for example, which defeated Government in court, and united a community across the political divide, would have exceeded constituency spending limits. The Stop Climate Chaos coalition of over 100 organisations would have exceeded spending limits in their campaign against Kingsnorth coal power station - and each organisation, bizarrely, is jointly and severally liable for the total spend of a coalition meaning they can't campaign on any other issue. Political parties face no such restrictions.

This is criminal law so the ultimate sanction is prison. No wonder Helen Mountfield QC said it risked having a 'chilling effect' on campaigning.

There is a real question about what politics is and who has the right to take part in it. Andrew Lansley, the Minister responsible for the Bill, told NGOs "If you want to campaign around elections then join a political party or found one". What arrogance. Politics is far too important to leave it to politicians. And giant media corporations. And corporate lobbyists like Linton Crosby, not regulated by this Bill. That's the view of all the people who give their money, time and trust to some of our best-loved organisations from Oxfam and Amnesty International to the Federation of Women's Institutes and the Royal British Legion.

The Labour Party, and all of the smaller parties, opposed the 'Gagging Bill' consistently since it was published (only a handful of Conservative and Lib Dem MPs rebelled). But the real test of parties is what they do when they are in power. Charities and campaign groups are looking for a clear commitment now that a Labour Government would scrap this law within two years of the general election and replace it with regulation that respects democracy and freedom of speech.

Liz Hutchins coordinated the alliance of charity and campaign groups that opposed Part 2 of the Lobbying Bill. Follow Liz on twitter @Liz_Hutchins