The Lobbying Act restricts Oxfam from calling on political parties to support the world’s poorest, but allows newspapers to campaign for the rich, poor or cheesed off to their hearts content. It limits the Countryside Alliance and RSPCA from campaigning for or against fox hunting, but permits the press to run witch hunts against any politician they dislike. Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond, the Barclay Brothers or Evgeny Lebedev can launch unlimited media campaigns for their pet political projects, but charities are capped at £319,800 in England (£55,400 in Scotland, £44,000 in Wales, £30,800 in Northern Ireland).
It is astonishing that a government committed to the “Big Society”, reducing red tape and giving people freedom should tangle civil society in mass of bureaucracy if they dare to campaign for their charitable objectives during the election. Restrictions apply from 19 September, just after International Democracy Day on the 15th, until 7 May 2015. Any organisation spending more than £20,000 in England (£10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) on ‘regulated campaign activities’ after 19 September must register with the Electoral Commission (see their guidance and get updates here). The Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement’s briefing sets out the key features of the Lobbying Act with FAQs.
Newspapers, periodicals and broadcaster are expressly excluded from the Act, so that they can lobby for any candidate or issue without constraint (see Schedule 8A 2 (1) (a)). Presumably a newspaper could do a public service by creating an election campaign supplement (“Campaigning Times: Visions for a Better Britain”) which, week after week, addressed issues that charities and pressure groups care about. It could even shift the focus of the election to issues charities and their supporters care about.
The campaign against the Lobbying (“gagging”) Act created an extraordinary alliance of organisations against the Government’s restrictions on third party lobbying. Groups which disagreed about almost everything else joined forces to oppose the law. They lost and the law is now in force. Perhaps a similar alliance could create a campaigning magazine for everyone who wants a say in the election but isn’t part of a political party? By working together they could create common ground to strengthen democracy and give civil society greater equality of influence with press barons and corporations.
The content would be copy rather than advertising, therefore exempt from the Act. If necessary, charities could contribute to the cost through advertising or sponsorship, but the joint venture would cost each organisation less than the £319,800 campaign cap – and reach many more people than any organisation on their own.
Every issue could be a news story itself. Done well it would set the agenda, particularly in the early days after 19th September. Politicians couldn’t afford to ignore it. The election campaign could become a lot more interesting.
NGOs are determined to continue campaigning with:
- Producing manifestos with commitments they want from parties and candidates;
- Party and candidate pledges: setting out support or opposition to key policies
- Analysis of party manifestos: saying which are the best/worst and why
- Analysis of party records including what pledges were kept or broken from the last election
- Hustings with party leaders/representatives: debating the issues
- Events at party conferences
All these could be covered in a “Campaigning Times: Visions for a Better Britain”
Newspapers regularly carry paid-for supplements. They might be willing to include the “Campaigning Times”. Perhaps a group of papers could be persuaded to carry the supplement – the Guardian, Telegraph, Mirror, Evening Standard, Independent, New Statesman, Spectator and Third Sector. It could appear once a month or even once a week in the run up to the election, in print and online, inserted in newspapers and distributed by campaigning organisations through their supporters.
So could it happen?
A recent survey (29 April) showed that 50% of the public think charities should face no restrictions on campaigning only 15% believe they should be restricted, compared to 55% for wealthy individuals and 62% for tobacco industry.A third (35%) believed trade unions should face restrictions. It is possible that people might prefer to read what charities want the government to do than from much discredited politicians and their parties.
This may be a completely batty idea, but, who knows? It’s worth considering.
What do you think?
Titus Alexander, Convenor, Democracy Matters