Later this month, the Trades Union Congress is backing a march and rally in Manchester against the ConDems’ carve-up of the NHS. Next year, a repeat campaign could be deemed illegal under legislation due for debate in parliament today.
The TUC is not exactly a scaremongering organisation. So when general secretary Frances O’Grady warns that the Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill is “attack on free speech worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship” there is just cause for alarm.
She points out that the Bill has been drawn so widely that it will “shut down dissent for the year before an election”, adding: “No organisation that criticises a government policy will be able to overdraw their limited ration of dissent without fearing a visit from the police.”
Introduced in response to assorted scandals, one half of the Bill contains proposals to create a register of lobbying firms. The rest is actually a draconian attack on the freedom to campaign. With the date of the next election fixed for May 2015, campaigns from May 2014 could fall foul of the new rules if they are passed. Breaching these will become a criminal offence.
At present only activities designed with the intent of influencing an election result are regulated. The Bill will instead will regulate activity that may affect the result of an election. That could embrace any criticism of government policy
The amount that third party campaign groups can spend in the year before an election is reduced by more than half to £390,000. The Bill proposes that staff time and other costs should now be included in the limit, whereas before only materials and activities like leaflets and ads were regulated. The TUC believes that the cost of its 2014 Congress alone could take it over the limit.
Naturally, political party conferences are given an exemption in election spending limits. Self-seeking or what!
While the Bill is clearly an attack on the trade unions, particularly those affiliated to the Labour Party, its scope is much wider. Charities and campaign groups like Greenpeace look certain to get caught in the net.
Human rights lawyer Helen Mountfield QC, in a legal opinion for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), says that “uncertainty about what the law requires is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, by putting small organisations and their trustees/directors in fear of criminal penalty if they speak out on matters of public interest and concern."
And worse. The Bill is so vague that anyone who spends over £5,000 on anything that can be in any way said to potentially affect an election will be caught up. That would cover many political blog sites and online campaign groups like 38degrees.
Even the Electoral Commission, which is in charge of regulating elections, has expressed concerns about the Bill to the government. Are ministers bothered? No they are not. Andrew Lansley, infamous author of the NHS wrecking legislation, has accused opponents of “scaremongering” and claims the Bill will introduce “transparency” into campaigning. As we know, Lansley is a man of his word so that’s alright.
As for the lobbying industry – which is valued at £2 billion a year – the Bill won’t make much difference. The 70 firms that lobby for access to ministers or promote certain policy changes, are the tip of an iceberg . Major corporations and interest groups have their own in-house teams. They, naturally, won’t be affected by any register.
The reality is that corporate interests and the interests of the state are inextricably entwined. That is because the political machinery of the country has always been ready to serve the dominant economic and financial interests which, as we speak, are capitalist in their nature.
While the process doesn’t always run smoothly, the broad agenda is the same. The business of government is, more openly than ever before, business itself. That’s why the welfare state has been wrecked by successive governments and replaced by a market-corporate state.
Policing of dissent and opposition is reaching new heights. On top of the mass surveillance and penetration of movements by state agents, campaigning itself is to face criminal sanctions if the proposed rules are transgressed. A democracy this isn’t. A corporatocracy it is.