The Gagging Bill continues to progress
Myth 1: The new law will stop “big money” buying /
The government claims that this law is needed to stop US-style
“super-PACs”, run by millionaires, flooding the airwaves with
negative political advertising. But they can’t point to any examples of
millionaire-backed “super-PACS” in the UK actually existing. Perhaps
that’s because we already have laws banning big money radio and TV advertising.
The way “big money” actually influences elections in the UK is
through massive donations to political parties. That’s a huge problem, with
wealthy donors basically buying influence and peerages. The gagging law does
nothing to stop this – millionaire party donors like Lord Ashcroft or Lord
Sainsbury can continue to funnel as much cash into their chosen party as they
If the government really wanted to stop “big money” influencing
politics, they could introduce a maximum donation limit for both political
parties and independent groups. That would tackle the current problem and
prevent any future rise in “super-PACs”, and it’s a measure 38
Degrees members would certainly support. Why are they instead targeting
charites, community groups and campaigners?
Myth 2. Civil society
will still be allowed to talk about issues – as long as they don’t get involved
in party politics.
Important issues which ordinary people care about, like trying to protect the
NHS, will be a key election issue for most of the political parties.The gagging
law would apply to campaigning on most issues that are being contested by
different political parties – i.e. any big issue of the day! For example, if
one political party made privatising NHS services a key part of its manifesto,
then a 38 Degrees campaign against privatising the NHS would be considered ‘for
election purposes’ and be subject to the gagging law.
Myth 3. £390,000 is a
lot of money. Why should organisations be allowed to spend more?
In a free society, charities, local groups and ordinary people should be able
to come together and campaign effectively. £390,000 is only 2% of what
political parties are allowed to spend. Also, the new law says that charities
and campaign groups will have to include core staff costs in this limit –
something political parties aren’t expected to do.
Groups like 38 Degrees don’t need as much money as political parties – we rely
on people power rather than expensive advertising agencies. But organising
people power does cost some money. 38 Degrees currently costs around £1.1
million per year to run – money spent on maintaining a powerful and secure web
site, a small office, a staff team of 15, printing leaflets and posters, hiring
church halls for member meetings, and so on. That’s all funded by small
donations (average donation £10.78) and reported in full in the annual audited
Banning 38 Degrees from spending more than £390,000 would mean big people
powered campaigns like Save our NHS or Save our Forests would be impossible to
Myth 4. Charities are
happy now that some concessions have been promised
This isn’t true. A wide range of organisations including NCVO, Oxfam, Christian
Aid, Countryside Alliance and Friends of the Earth are still warning that the
gagging law will have a huge impact on what they can campaign on.
MPs have been claiming that NCVO are now happy with the amendments the
government has committed to drafting. In fact the NCVO wrote a piece in The
Guardian last week highlighting the problems they still think need solving:
“NCVO and the wider voluntary sector have made it clear that the legislation
remains ambiguous and potentially damaging in a number of places. In
- The proposed list of activities that could count
towards controlled expenditure remains neither clear nor workable
- The expenditure thresholds proposed in the new bill,
both for registration with the Electoral Commission and as a maximum cap
allowed, will be damaging
- The question of how to sensibly regulate groups working
in coalition remains to be addressed.”
I decided to find out what the MP supposed to represent me, Duncan Hames, a Liberal Democrat, had been doing about this. I follow what he does in Parliament, as he is supposed to be representing me, and all the other voters in the Chippenham constituency. Most of the time, he seems to me to be doing this by asking ministers easy questions that allow them to churn out smug answers about the wonders the government is performing. But that’s just how it seems to me, and your mileage may vary…
On this issue, he is voting in favour of the government. Obviously, I’m not terribly happy about that, so I have emailed him to ask him to try to change the bill. I used the excellent 38 Degrees facility to email my MP, as follows:-
Dear Duncan Hames,
I see from your voting record that you are continuing to support the Gagging Bill.
This law would be used to prevent ordinary Englishmen such as myself from publicly expressing political opinions on our websites and blogs for a year before an election.
I find it hard to believe that you are actually in favour of such an absurdly draconian measure. Please find the time to look at the bill again, and see to it that it does not pass in this form. The whole bill does (deliberately?) nothing like the Prime Minister’s stated aim of curbing powerful lobbyists, and would be used to suppress democratic opinions.
In the event that I get anything other than an automated response or a letter with a copy of what a minister says, I will add it here…
I would urge all UK readers to consider writing to their own MP about this, while you still can without breaking the law.