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Taking liberties

Keith Ewing on a Coalition 'gagging bill' that will muzzle charities and trade unions

On 3rd September, the House of Commons gave a second reading to the lobbying bill. This was despite the widespread concern about its impact on free speech, concern shared on both sides of the House.

While the ineffectiveness of the bill to deal with lobbying is one cause for alarm, even more alarming are the vicious provisions dealing with free speech before an election.

A number of organisations have lined up to attack the government: from charities to pressure groups, with even MPs concerned about their freedom to speak out in criticism of the government. As a result, on 6th September the government announced changes to the Bill only a week after its introduction. The charities and others for whom this was designed to benefit remain sceptical.

These concessions to the charities reveal even more clearly that the Coalition's main target is trade unions, effectively gagging them from running campaigns in favour of Labour in the 12 months (that is 12 months) of the campaign.

This is because the Bill still contains two new forms of spending control. The first is 'controlled expenditure', which effectively restricts the ambient noise unions and others may make in an election.

The second is 'targeted expenditure', which is defined as expenditure that can reasonably be regarded as designed to support the electoral prospects of a particular political party standing at the election.

While the permitted level of controlled expenditure is to be reduced, with a new cap of £319,800 in England, targeted expenditure is to be capped at £31,980 (also in England).

It is, however, the latter that is the real control: the purpose of all election expenditure is to advance the cause of a political party. Otherwise there would be no point incurring it.

This effectively gags the political voice of trade unions for a year, and is aggravated by the fact that the expanded definition of what counts as election related expenditure has greatly increased.

The only way a union will be able to spend more than £31,980 on targeted expenditure is if it gets the permission of the Party. But if this happens, any expenditure by the union will count towards the Party's spending limit.

It is hard to see why the Party would agree to this, or indeed how such an arrangement can begin to be consistent with the United Kingdom's obligations arising under international law to respect freedom of expression.

So we can expect a legal challenge not only on the ground that restriction on the Bill are overbroad and too tight, but also that the right of unions to freedom of expression is conditional on a licence being granted by Labour. In the meantime, apart from gagging trade unions in the election year, the Bill has other implications, not least for the debate initiated by Ed Miliband in July about the future of the Labour Party-trade union relationship.

Some trade unions appeared initially to welcome Miliband's initiative, partly because they saw the possibility of being able to divert resources to independent political campaigning. If, however, the Miliband proposals are implemented, it is true that trade union political funds will be swollen with money that in the past would have been used to cover trade union affiliation fees.

If the lobbying bill is passed, for the reasons explained above trade unions will have few opportunities to spend the money. They will have little option but to hand over in large donations what was once provided in affiliation fees. This leads along the path to a very clear trap that will fatally undermine the trade union role in the Labour party, particularly if Labour win the next election, either alone or in Coalition with the LibDems.

My prediction is that the next Labour manifesto will include a sentence about taking the money out of politics. My second prediction is that the next Labour government will introduce contribution caps and state funding.

If that is the case, the unions that accept the Miliband agenda will have shot themselves painfully in both feet. A cap on donations will remove any financial leverage. And a massive decline in affiliation will remove any residual influence. Add to that the implications of the Bill. Trade unions will have loads of cash but will be unable meaningfully to engage in electoral politics, having allowed themselves to be pushed to the margins.

True, the Bill will not affect their ability to fight racism or to conduct effective guerilla campaigns to save public services. But that is a different kind of politics, and one that legally does not require a political fund.