The Government’s concession this week to pause and briefly consult on the worst aspects of the deeply flawed Part 2 of the Lobbying Bill demonstrates the power and importance of collective organising and co-operative campaigning. Ministers, MPs and Lords were faced with the united voices of 60 NGOs, charities and other third sector organisations plus hundreds of thousands of their members and supporters, as well as the Electoral Commission, parliamentary committees and the newly formed Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, all expressing their concerns over the Bill’s potential impact.
The ERS is proud to have played our part in this coalition. Over 3,700 of our members and supporters took part in our campaign to directly contact the Ministers responsible for the Bill and share their concerns. Would we have been able to do this if the Lobbying Bill proceeds in its current form? The Bill is so poorly written that it remains unclear.
In our submission to the Civil Society Commission, we explained that research-based policy campaigning is at the heart of the Electoral Reform Society’s remit. Not only do we engage in policy debates – we believe that a vibrant democracy depends on civil society organisations like ours engaging in these debates. We remain concerned that the consequences of an unchanged Lobbying Bill could stifle this important discourse in the lead up to the 2015 general election.
The ERS believes that it is entirely appropriate for voluntary organisations to try to persuade influential parliamentarians, parties and candidates that building a better democracy in the
UK is important. Our role is to do the research, make the case, and build a consensus around our policy positions. Political parties and government cannot create good public policy in a vacuum, and one role of civil society is to work with parties and government to develop the best possible policies.
If the Bill proceeds in its current form, organisations that do any significant policy-based campaigning activities in the year leading up to an election may find themselves subject to overly restrictive regulations, reporting requirements and punitive spending thresholds. Further, the greatly reduced registration thresholds and spending limits placed on campaigning organisations in Wales and Scotland would likely threaten our electoral reform advocacy work in both nations.
While the ERS has always wholeheartedly supported the notion of getting big money out of politics, Part 2 of the Lobbying Bill would have served to penalise the organisations who tell truth to power and enhance democratic discourse. The Government’s concession of a five-week consultation period is far from the three months recommended by the Civil Society Commission in their report, but it is a step in the right direction. The Government must now take this time to strike a better balance between reasonable regulation and freedom for citizens who want to help shape the future of Britain.