Regulate more lobbying and less campaigning: how to improve The Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill

Neither the current rules regulating lobbying nor those controlling so-called ‘third party’ campaigning (i.e. by someone other than candidates or their parties) are extensive enough. Both need improving.

With lobbying, the case for better regulation is easy to make: pick a scandal, any scandal.

With third party campaigning, the loopholes and relaxed existing rules are less obvious because, so far, they have either been largely under-exploited or have been made use of by ‘good guys’ such as Hope Not Hate. Yet the very same generous rules that let Hope Not Hate explicitly campaigning for people not to vote for the BNP could just as well be invoked by racists to campaign against non-white candidates. And one sure pattern of electoral expenditure controls over the last 20 years is that when one group starts doing something new then others follow over successive years.

The problem, however, with The Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill is that it covers too little lobbying and too much campaigning.

On lobbying, the Bill draws the net so enormously narrowly that it misses nearly all lobbyists. It is not only that it omits lobbyists employed ‘in house’ by a company or organisation rather than in a consultancy. It is also (put simply) excludes lobbyists who work for consultancies who mostly do something else other than lobbying. Yet the frequent pattern is for the larger consultancies to have lobbying teams within them. As long as the rest of the company’s work is not lobbying, then their lobbying colleagues basically escape regulation.

The government has said it does not want to put onerous regulation on firms. Yet the bizarre outcome of this is that the small firm which just does lobbying will therefore have the burden of regulation whilst the international company which wraps up lobbying with other services escapes regulation. Far from saving the smaller firms from regulation, the Bill does the opposite – it makes life harder for them than compared to many of the larger firms.

And all that is without getting into the unduly narrow definition of lobbying which means even a pure-lobbying firm may well escape the net.

That part of the Bill should be improved by casting the net wider – just as the part of the Bill which regulates third-party campaigning should draw the net more narrowly. Activities directly aimed to promote a candidate or party (or to hinder a candidate or party) at an election should be more tightly regulated.

It is sensible to say that an activity such as commissioning an opinion poll on tactical voting options in a constituency and press releasing its results should in future be covered by expenditure controls in the way that putting leaflets through letterboxes with bar charts on them would be. However, rather than restricting polls to cases where they are clearly linked to influencing an election result, the Bill as currently drafted risks capturing all sorts of more general polling (and other activities) about political issues. The broad meaning of “election purposes” needs fixing in the Bill.

Get both these points right, and the overall effect would be right: protecting our democratic system and the public’s voice in it against abuse of power –whether that comes from secretive nobbling of ministers or excessive expenditure to sway votes.