REPORT

The U.K. ‘gagging law’ could strangle freedom of speech

By Lewis G. Parker

In January, the U.K. Parliament passed a new “gagging law” that critics claim will silence online petitioners and political bloggers in the months before an election. The law has been widely condemned by bloggers, activists, and unions across the political spectrum, many of whom are ready to flout the rules and face arrest.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act is supposed to regulate election campaign spending by those not registered as political parties or standing for election and introduces a statutory register for consultants and lobbyists.

The law could also force independent websites loosely affiliated to a political party…to be considered part of the party’s spending

“The point is to prevent big money piling into constituency election campaigns, dwarfing the spending limits of candidates themselves, and effectively buying seats for rich benefactors,” Liberal Democrat Shirley Williams told the Guardian.

“We have seen in the US the corrosive effect of the millions of dollars spent buying political influence. The intention here is to keep that trend firmly on the other side of the Atlantic, and ensure what non-party ‘Super-PAC’ type spending does occur is totally transparent.”

While the act may be targeting lobbyists on the surface, it’s indirectly taking out independent bloggers, those serving as government watchdogs.

Beginning with the 2015 elections, political blogs that spend over £20,000 in the seven months before the poll—a modest salary for one or two full-time bloggers—will now be required to register with the Electoral Commission and comply with potentially time-consuming new accounting regulations.

The law could also force independent websites loosely affiliated to a political party, such as Conservative Home and Labour List, to be considered part of the party’s spending for the election and thus have to seek permission to carry on blogging about electoral issues or running campaigns that influence voters.

The central issue for blogs is the £20,000 figure, which would be problematic even for smaller sites, like LabourList, the independent blog operated by Mark Ferguson. “Add on server costs and other necessities for maintaining a blog of LabourList’s size and we’d cross that threshold with ease,” Ferguson said.

“It’s not quite like Putin’s Russia, but it’s heading in that direction,” offered Paul Staines, founder of the Guido Fawkes blog.

For activists and petitioners such as 38 Degrees, the spending limit for “non-party campaigning” before an election has been reduced by more than 60 percent to £319,800, and just under £10,000 per constituency, which would barely cover the cost of sending each voter a leaflet. The range of expenses that now have to be included in the budget have also been widened to include staff and office costs.

It seems the government will have a fight to enforce the new lobbying bill. Not only has the regulator, Electoral Commission, already deemed it unenforceable, large swathes of 38 Degrees members and bloggers such as Ferguson have stated they are willing to face the consequences of breaking the law.

The Electoral Commission will announce its recommendations to bloggers, activists, and unions in July 2014, along with the penalties it will impose for those who flout the rules, which have yet to be decided.

“If the government honestly think they can force me to go and ask permission from Ed Miliband to carry on blogging in election year – or for other bloggers to do likewise – they can get lost,” Ferguson said.

“I’d rather break electoral law and get arrested than surrender the independence of this blog, thank you very much.”

38 Degrees was set up in 2009 as a “people power” movement that uses a huge email list, social networks, and local activist meetings to drum up support and aggressively lobby for popular issues. With 1.7 million members—nearly four times more than all the major parties combined—38 Degrees has forced government U-turns on some of the biggest issues of the day, such as the selling of national forests to private companies and ill-fated proposal to cap the number of times people can see a doctor.

38 Degrees campaigner Becky Jarvis says the group will probably get around the gagging law, by hook or by crook. “There’s certainly a percentage of members that want to form a political party,” said Jarvis, since under electoral law a political party is allowed to spend much more than a blogger or a petitioning site.

The law’s toughest curb on corporate interests…will only apply to “third party” influence peddlers.

“There is also a large percentage who say they are willing to flout the law and risk being taken to court. There’s quite a lot of people interested in using lawyers to get around the law.

“A very, very small number of people want to comply with the gagging law.”

The bill was sold to the British public partly by pointing to the U.S., where money has the constitutionally privileged status of “speech,” and pretending the new law will prevent our political system becoming like Washington, D.C., where politicians are effectively owned by their big-money backers and nobody else really has any influence whatsoever.

He’ll end up breaking the rules.

Except it will most likely do the opposite, since the law’s toughest curb on corporate interests—a new register of lobbyists—will only apply to “third party” influence peddlers. It won’t compel the 80 percent of lobbyists in the UK currently working directly for large firms to sign up. So the political wings of Shell oil, the Murdoch media empire, and other huge lobbying powers won’t be affected by the new legislation. And the rules governing big-money donations to political parties will also remain unchanged.