Britain Passes Restrictions on Election Speech, Everybody Unhappy

by Charles C. W. Cooke

Per the Spectator, my country of birth has just passed a new law that:

places a national cap on campaign expenditure from any one non-party organisation or coalition of organisations. It places a constituency-specific cap of £9,750 on such expenditure too. And it forces campaigners to take on a wad of bureaucracy in order to prove that they remain at heel. The proposed demands on campaigners, by the way, are more onerous than those made of political parties.

In other words, the measure severely limits the scope of non-political actors to spend money in an attempt to influence elections. Sound familiar?

Putting to one side arguments over liberty and the degree to which speech, assembly, and money can be argued to be synonymous, it’s difficult to see who actually likes this change — and, for that matter, why on earth it was deemed to be so necessary in the first place. The Guardian reports that:

Charities have expressed their disappointment after the government’s controversial lobbying bill squeezed through the House of Lords on Tuesday, despite fears it could limit freedom of speech in the run-up to an election.

The U.N.’s special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association writes that:

Although sold as a way to level the electoral playing field, the bill actually does little more than shrink the space for citizens – particularly those engaged in civil society groups – to express their collective will. And in doing so, it threatens to tarnish the United Kingdom’s democracy.

The most disturbing portion of the bill, part 2, restricts civil society organisations, such as campaign groups, trade unions, and charities from engaging in campaigning in the year before an election. Under prevailing international norms, “reasonable limitations” on campaign expenditures can be justified in some circumstances – namely to ensure that the process is not distorted on behalf of any one candidate or party. But the UK bill simply goes too far, and it does so in a haphazard manner.

Trade unions are unhappy:

If the government gets its way it is going to become much harder for that to happen. The list of groups which will be affected is endless: those attempting to save a threatened local hospital, or block the High Speed 2 rail project in constituencies on the proposed route, or trying to combat extremism in constituencies where far-right parties are threatening to make progress, are all set to be affected. There are many, many more examples.

And those plucky independents, whose little voices are allegedly threatened by big money? Well, in the Guardian, the member of parliament who has been used to justify the measure calls it “indefensible” and shouts, “not in my name”:

the extraordinary hypocrisy of the coalition in ramming through its transparency of lobbying bill (better known as the gagging bill). By imposing a quite astonishing range of requirements on campaigning organisations in the run-up to elections, it would effectively shut down legitimate voices seeking to raise awareness on issues of public interest, whether they are on NHS reform, housing policy, or wildlife conservation. Campaign spending limits for “third party” organisations – such as charities and pressure groups – would be drastically cut, and the definition of what constitutes campaigning broadened. And there would be new forms of regulation for organisations lobbying on issues at constituency level.

The bill faces an unprecedented breadth of opposition, encompassing everyone from the Taxpayers’ Alliance and Oxfam to the Women’s Institute and the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance. So why is the government so determined? As Juliet Swann of the Electoral Reform Society in Scotland has asked: “What are they trying to prevent? What terrible thing has happened that they think this will stop from happening in the future? Why are they trying to fix a hypothetical situation that you can’t give me any examples of?”

Other than that, it’s a triumph.

Funnily enough, the only way that this law can be destroyed in Britain is if the people can convince parliament of its unsuitability. The heretics had better get busy registering themselves  . . .

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