The charity, campaigning and union sectors are currently, and absolutely rightly, objecting to a government bill to ‘regulate lobbying’ by, well, limiting charitable and trade union campaigning.
They are objecting to the bill because it is badly drafted, so will affect legitimate campaigning. As Karl Wilding of the NCVO says, one of the major problems is that the phrasing of the proposed bill will regulate speech that has an impact on an election, even if it is not intended to impact an election.
“At the moment you have to intend to influence an election to be in trouble. But the wording is being changed to ‘if you have the effect’ of influencing an election. What is really dangerous about this is that you may not intend to influence the outcome of a local election — yet the punishment is you could go to prison. We think this legislation will make people frightened of speaking out.”
I couldn’t agree more. The proposed Lobbying Bill is a mess, full of unintended consequences because the bill appears more motivated by a desire to restrain the activity of political opponents, than to limit the abuse of influence.
Yet, Labour friends, could I also remind us that we face our own unintended consequences? Unless decided otherwise, this Conference will see a motion to regulate the activity of organisations which seek to influence the Labour party.
Here’s what the motion says:
“Political organisations not affiliated or associated under a national agreement with the party, but whom engage in internal activity, shall be required to:
i. Notify the national party of all legally reportable donations received.
ii. Transfer 50% of all donations received beyond the first £25,000 per annum to the national Labour Party.
C. Incorporated organisations that engage in internal activity shall be required to provide upon request all legal, constitutional, and financial documentation to the National Executive Committee to ensure that they meet acceptable standards of democracy, governance and transparency. These organisations are expected to abide by the authority of the NEC in such matters.
D. The NEC shall be responsible for the interpretation, implementation, and enforcement of these rules.”
Now, this motion has widely been interpreted as simply an attempt to limit the activity of Progress. I am a member of the Progress strategy board, so might be expected to oppose it on those grounds. Yet in its alleged attempt to circumscribe Progress, the motion also restricts the activities of many other organisations. It is full of unintended, harmful, consequences.
After all, what might the definition of ‘internal activity’ be?
Could it be training candidates for internal elections? Well, the Labour Women’s Network does that.
Could it be something as broad at influencing the debate in the Labour movement on key policy issues? Well, every think-tank, campaign group and left-wing organisation in Britain does that. For example, CLASS, the Union funded thinktank (supported indeed by Aslef) is explicit that their mission is “Originating in the labour movement, Class works with a broad coalition of supporters, academics and experts to develop and advance alternative policies for today“.
Could it be influencing the structure and organisation of the party? How could Labourlist, for example, not be “engaging in internal activity”, given its strong stances on party organisation, policy and structure? The Labour Women’s network constitution says their purpose includes a mission to “initiate and support measures which are of specific relevance to women and, in particular, are designed to see an increase in the number, activism and participation of Labour women at all levels of the Party“. What about the various “Labour friends of” groups?
As far as I can tell, each of the organisations I’ve listed would fall under the header of the motion, and each has an annual income in excess of £25,000 (Compass has declared annual income of £320,000, and Class of £100,000 for example). It would be very hard to for the NEC to develop a workable definition of engaging in ‘internal activity’ that did not sweep up most or all of the above. This would cripple many of these organisations.
Whatever one thinks of Progress, this motion seems to create huge scope for unintended consequences that would be extremely damaging for political debate and discussion right across the party, and at the very least would create a situation where the NEC has to decide whether a blog post on Labourlist advocating a vote against a Lobbying bill does or does not constitute internal activity, and whether therefore Labourlist must hand a proportion of it’s income to the party.
For organisations like Compass, Class and Tribune, the position might simply involve them withdrawing from expressing views on Labour party issues, for fear of being caught up in the motion’s net and being forced to pay almost half of their annual income to the party.
It is hard to see how this would be good for any part of the Labour movement, while potential bickering over to whom the rules apply could well lead to an extended unpleasant political battle as views on the NEC will undoubtedly shift over time.
Thankfully, there is a way out that can stop these unintended consequences from damaging the party.
The Collins review is looking now at the fundamental structure of the party, including what it is to be an affiliated organisation or a supporter of the party. Surely it would be foolish to precisely govern non-affiliated organisations before we have decided the future structure of Labour affiliation, supporting groups, individuals and membership?
We could instead let the Collins Review complete its work on what the party structure should be, including on affiliation, then after Conference decides on that, consider how to govern any organisation which remains outside the decision of Conference makes on affiliates and registered supporters stucture. This would mean that the unintended consequences of the current motion could be avoided, while allowing those who feel that affiliated organisations should not be permitted to influence Labour internal debate to make that argument in the light of the new structure of the party, potentially making their case both more effective and more enforceable. ((For all I know, the future proposed structure of the Labour party could lead to all of the groups above affiliating to the party – though I’m not sure how companies like Compass, Tribune could do so under their current structures, but that’s a matter for all to consider after we know what the party will look like)).
Just as there is still time for the Government to step back from the Lobbying bill, there’s still time for the Labour movement to step back from its own poorly drafted proposals.
- I haven’t included organisations like Labour first, CLPD, Labour briefing and so on, because I’ve no idea about their budgets [↩]