Lobbying makes me feel uncomfortable. As part of the functioning of democracy we need freedom of speech and to have easy access to our rulers, including MPs, Parliament and members of government, to plead our cases or causes. However, for vested interests, vocal minorities or pressure groups being able to exert undue influence, employ professionals in lobbying or use taxpayers’ money for their gain and pain for others, it is not so straightforward. Yet is there a problem with these people (the lobbyists) pursuing narrow interests or failings in politicians? And if the fault is with the latter, is the solution really achieved through making things more difficult for the former and limiting our freedom of speech?
The situation which the political elite have led us into is far from satisfactory; if my experience and observations are anything to go by, it appears that we ordinary voters will (if lucky) get fobbed off and chums of our rulers will get the ‘red carpet’. Joseph Schumpeter, the Austro-American economist and political scientist, predicted something similar arising, that democracy and economic performance would in time be undermined by corporatism. Thus we have disproportionate influence in the corridors of power, and perhaps also the media, by a few ‘establishment’ figures and organisations.
Such a cartel or ‘club’ is obviously self-reinforcing and increasingly remote from ordinary people, our lives, wishes and concerns; Portcullis House is aptly named and the EU Commission seems straight out of Franz Kafka’s The Castle (a nightmarish story of mysterious all-powerful bureaucratic rulers). Professionalised lobbying, PR or having connections becomes more influential; these are the only ways of getting through to the powers that be. Chums are also likely to be more effective; influential personal relationships develop; the silence of the majority outside can be interpreted as acquiesce or in-difference; the world is seen through a different, distorted lens.
With this background in mind, the current bill, Transparency of Lobbying, Non – Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, is disturbing. Part 2 could undermine democracy, free speech and activities by ordinary people working together in a particular cause, which may not even be political. It is well worth a read, although practically unintelligible with complex cross-referencing; why has it has been prepared like this and more importantly, whose interests are being served by obfuscation?
What is crystal clear is that the bill is wide-ranging (with catch-all clauses open to wide interpretation) and for many smaller, weaker organisations or groups of people (including charities and local causes), a bureaucratic/legal nightmare or even death knell. To illustrate, a small charity attempting to raise awareness of a rare medical condition and fund research could find itself having to register with the Electoral Commission and be on the wrong side of the law, because its poster or brochure is seen to be favouring a particular political party or candidate in a Parliamentary election year. Not the charity’s fault a candidate took an interest in its work, but that may be enough to cause trouble. Spending little money is no safeguard either. Our small charity could belong to a loose group with other similar charities and combined ‘expenditure’ of everyone is over the limit.
So, with this bill, we seem to be heading towards a world where everything is forbidden by catch-all unintelligible legislation except that which our rulers allow. In The Castle, K fights heroically against the system imposed by the rulers in the castle. Increasingly today our only defence of democracy, freedom of speech and ordinary people seems to be Ukip and U.
Some further sources of information: