CommonsTransparency is as transparency does

There are myriad ways to judge what the real nature of the Transparency of Lobbying (2014) Bill might be. As of this morning by the way (subject only to the formality of Royal Assent) it has passed into law.

I say there are ways one can judge, because merely looking at the bare content (which I’ve now done at length) isn’t going to get you far in terms of interpreting what it might be used for, and what motives might lie behind it. Hence the observations and suggestions outlined below.

1. I am always wary of legislation (or indeed any political pronouncement) that contains the word ‘transparency’. Such abstract nouns are intrinsically Orwellian, in that more often than not, the real meaning is antithetical to the nomenclature. It smacks of protesting too much, and can be found in other more pernicious forms, for example The Freedom-loving People’s Democratic Egalitarian Republic of Zimbabwe or wherever.

2. It does no harm to judge a piece of legislation by its sponsors. The main chap in charge of this Bill was Andrew Lansley – a man who (as predicted here from June 2010 onwards) made a complete Horlicks of NHS reform on almost every dimension. “He could not,” as Peter Cook once memorably remarked, “organise even the most simple of murder conspiracies without cocking it up”. The sponsor in the Lords was Baron Wallace of Tankerness, a, um, Liberal Democrat who was formerly leader of the LibDems in Scotland. Right: clearly a man at home with the idea of restricting liberty, then.

3. A keen supporter of the Bill is Gary Streeter, Conservative MP for South West Devon, a man some Sloggers know well from the past. Says Gary, “The reaction to this bill is ill-founded. It will not prevent any charity from carrying on its legitimate activity. What it will do is prevent trade unions spending shed loads of money in marginal seats at election times without any reference to the spending limits with which parties and candidates have to comply. That is why Labour are so opposed to it.” Gary is a very litigious man, fond of falling back on the somewhat omnivorous legal firm of Foot Anstey, from under whose stone he emerged some years ago as an SDP candidate….before abandoning ship in favour of the Tories. I have seen letters written by Gary to his less fortunate constituents suggesting he is not a very nice person, although that is of course an entirely personal opinion on my part.

4. The Left in general and 38 Degrees in particular have dubbed it The Gagging Bill. Labour MP Alison Seabeck, alleges, “Letters and e-mails from constituents who are opposed to this bill have inundated my office. The concerns being raised are genuine and heartfelt. David Cameron promised to take the big money out of politics but this an unbelievably poor piece of legislation which simply targets the wrong people”. Which of course she would say, because it is an attempt to rein in unregulated slush-funds applied to Parliamentary elections by the Trade Union movement. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the Bill that might stop Lord Ashcroft from carrying out opinion polls under the rules, and achieving front page coverage in the Daily Telegraph for the findings of said polls. This is I suspect because Camerlot has no desire in any way to curtail press comment, especially when it is demanded by expat tax avoiders who are also very large Conservative Party donors.

So much for the background. But what, according to Hansard, is the Bill officially designed to do? This is summarised in the following statement of intent that accompanied its introduction into Parliament:

  • introduces a statutory register of consultant lobbyists and establishes a Registrar to enforce the registration requirements
  • regulates more closely election campaign spending by those not standing for election or registered as political parties
  • strengthens the legal requirements placed on trade unions in relation to their obligation to keep their list of members up to date.

Given my views on lobbying in general and the all-pervasive corrupting power of money in British politics, the intent put forward there sounds to me, on the whole, a good start. Mind you, it does single the TUC out, and not exactly for praise. But let us sally forth with an open mind.

As far as I can tell, the statutory register of consultant lobbyists changes nothing for the better. It regulates only the formal lobbying of Ministers, and not the everyday nudge-nudge of lobbying, or indeed brown envelopes of the kind favoured by Tim Yeo. The informality of dinner at Number Ten with the PM (a £43m fundraiser for Camerlot since 2010) gets not a mention, and ongoing chats with Departments not including the Minister are also not covered.

It’s pure window-dressing. Under this legislation, Jeremy Hunt, Murdoch Junior, Boris Johnson and Rebekah Brooks could continue their entirely innocent discussions without fear of any blue-clad arm of great length grabbing any shoulders.

As with every form of legislation ever devised by our Parliament, politicians are exempted from every possible consequence of disobeying it. Thus, campaign spending by those not standing for election or registered as political parties is to be ‘more closely’ regulated, but for the Parties and their Stepford candidates, the same Rotten Bunfight will continue unabated. So trade unions will be rigidly monitored (and a good thing too) but not the usual fixers and canvassers, councillors and central office organisers, who know all the tricks, dirty or otherwise, off-white and offside. The clause here as drafted has the potential for a coach and horses through it anyway. For instance, I can register as a member of the Slogs for Curry Party, do no campaigning at all, but spend a fortune in the constituency supporting the LibDem candidate, with only a passion for Chicken Massala as my cover story.

Ultimately, the biggest crime of the Act (as with every Budget presented to Parliament since 1959) is what isn’t mentioned in the Introduction mission statement. Much as 38 Degrees likes to lay it on with a trowel, it is hard to read some of these clauses and not smell the unmistakeable odour of cordite that often follows an assassination of Hope.

For example, each year in advance of every general election must be free of any campaigning at all by ‘non-party’ organisations which might be deemed as likely to influence opinion. (Who decides on that one, we ask ourselves in vain). The main Westminster Parties, however, can continue to indulge in their Party Political Broadcasts (PPBs) and advertising in other media none of which are subject to Advertising Standards Authority regulation…because they got themselves exempted from that one too. Imagine the coincidence involved there. (Not that it means anything any more: Grant Shapps broke every known ASA clause when marketing online, and still got away with it).

Campaigning by such organisations (for example, pretty much every charity not formed to help the owners of swimming pools with their running costs) deemed not political will be slashed by an average of two-thirds to £390,000. With £390,000 in the media these days, you could advertise the imminent approach towards Earth of the planet Neptune and go unnoticed.

If I can just sum up here what Part II of the Act – as it left the House of Lords this week – amounts to, I would say this. It is a Charter for pimps to offer up every size, shape and colour of prostitute unmolested by Plod, the last of these being busily occupied telling the law-abiding folks in the neighbourhood to shut up about the noise of creaking bedsteads, or else.

As so often with this government, the respect shown to every attempt at reasonable containment of the Act’s insanity was treated with contempt. A last-minute Lords amendment to tighten the definition of ‘controlled expenditure’ – removing the administrative burden on third party campaigners, including charities – was not agreed to by the Commons. A proposal to reinsert the amendment was taken to a vote. Members voted 231 in favour and 249 against, and so the amendment was defeated. So much for David Cameron’s assault on Red Tape.

The final vote in the Second Chamber was a dead heat, but under Parliamentary procedures this counts as a Government victory. A detailed consideration of a highly dangerous piece of legislation thus split the wiser and more experienced Parliamentary check and balance House down the middle. But that reality was not a cause for Whips to pause and reflect. On the contrary, I understand it was the signal for Krug corks to pop.

Veteran Sloggers will know all too well my firm conviction that 38 Degrees has a barely hidden Leftist agenda, and the likes of Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey and Andy Burnham are capable of similar acts of constitutional vandalism whenever their equally arcane catechisms are threatened. But I remain uninterested in how many wrongs make a right: the Transparency of Lobbying Act (2014) is an Emergency Powers enabling structure waiting to be quietly amended by the Fat Controllers at some time in the future.

The Act is just another in the growing series of Laws passed in the United Kingdom whose sole purpose is not to benefit the citizenry, but rather to protect the soi-disant élite. Similar fertility procedures designed to increase the birthrate of fascist babies are appearing in every European State, and emerging from the Cheat the People tendency that works – unwatched and unelected – in Brussels and Strasbourg.

One parting shot that might make at least some of us feel vaguely empowered. The final Commons defeat involved a vote in which 231 MPs were in favour, and 249 against. That adds up to 480 MPs. There are, for now at least, 650 MPs in the House, and the Coalition majority in theory is 105. That means:

* 170 MPs were absent. Ask your local MP where he or she was on the night in question, and check out the alibi. Ask your elected representative why other commitments were more important than a threat to free speech as potentially substantial as this one.

* The Government majority was cut from 105 to a measly 18. This means a lot of Tories (unless pairing was undertaken on a grand scale) either abstained or voted for the measure. If you have a Conservative MP, ask them which way they voted, and why.

Too many people think this sort of inquisition is for wonks. They could not be more wrong. The overriding short-term reason we did not intervene in Syria involved a block of some 40-50 Tory MPs in marginal constituencies being put under pressure by voters unwilling to have people die because David Cameron wanted to be “up” there with Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair as a war leader.

I will offer only this as a bottom line. The freedom for Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers, pornographers and Russian billionaires to own British newspapers – and bend their output to fit various agendas – remains intact. We held an Inquiry to look at this. Leveson looked at the issue, and proposed regulating the one part of the media mix not controlled by such people.

Now we are in possession of another illiberal law restricting what can be said and when. Still this iniquitous media ownership situation pertains. The reason is munneeee in politics.

The Independent titles are under threat because their owner is growing tired of throwing good money after bad. The Guardian is losing support thanks to the minority eccentricity of its blindly outdated views and polemical inflexibility. The Mirror spends most of its time preaching to the converted. The pockets of the greedy are bottomless, but those of the weedy and needy wax ever more empty.

The last forty years have seen an enormous shift of power from the legislature to the Executive. The last twenty have seen an even more marked tectonic movement away from labour and in favour of capital.

I am for not for either labour or capital alone: I am for human beings, their real lives, community mutualism and cultural decency. I am for radical Constitutional change to tilt the balance of power back to where it should always reside: with the citizen whose taxes allow this farrago of incompetent onanism to continue.

Online is the only place left for effective resistance. FFS come out of the stockade and unite against the Barbarians.

Earlier at The Slog: Why defending victims of Plod fit-ups does not make one a paedophilephile