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Published on January 29th, 2014 | by Kristina Ilieva
Image © John Bradley. 2010


Beware: it may be illegal to blog against the ‘gagging law’

Charities from the entire social spectrum have gotten together in a stand against a lobbying and campaigning bill, which aims to regulate their actions in an order of gagging (i.e. ‘shut up’). The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill regulates only a period of activities and campaigning of seven and a half months before election. The wording vaguely suggests that it is related to party elections (judging by the title which addresses campaigning by entities other than parties). The regulations suggested are related to the spending of a charity (per constituency, per the campaign) if it is deemed that the campaign is political and has ‘electoral purposes’.

The Bill says that any association with a candidate- or non-candidate (i.e. campaigning against someone) or with a ‘certain category of people’ (i.e. implying the existence of identity perception) would be a crime. Part 2 of the bill, ‘Non-party campaigning’, restricts ‘promoting or procuring electoral success at any relevant election for […] candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions or who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who would otherwise would fall within a particular category of candidates’ (emphasis added). This approach advocates biased and segregating labeling of political candidates from a ‘particular category’, which may well be an environmental category or an anti-privatization of public services particular category- in the event of any election.

Transparency of ‘big money’?

Surprisingly, the bill is not targeting ‘big money’ at all! There is no mention of businesses’ donations, cooperation and private deals with politicians. It is important to note that only registered lobbying organisations are affected by the bill- namely charities, trade unions and lobbying communities (such as the awareness raising charity that I am writing for). It is contradictory as to why the registered institutions are targeted and not the unregistered businesses which ‘negotiate’ with political parties behind closed doors. When was anyone worried that charities, unions and issue-related campaigners are a threat to democracy?

Advocates of the bill claim that it is targeting the ‘big money’ put in politics and that it is providing the transparency behind ‘powerful campaigning voices’. Paul Tyler and Shirley Williams, for example write for the Guardian that ‘Liberal Democrats have always favoured, in addition to election spending controls, a cap on donations to political parties, so that influence and access cannot be auctioned to the highest bidder. The vested interests in both Conservative and Labour parties have conspired to prevent that happening. Only progress on limiting “third party” spending on election campaigning could be made.’ It seems that the Bill is an apology for an actual transparency bill. The Bill is supported not for what it is but for its ‘intentions’ and the fact that enhancing legislative restrictions has always a ‘noble purpose’

Are there any negative social effects at all?

The most common critiques, consistently presented by the charity 38 Degrees is that charities, community groups, NGOs and trade unions ‘ work would be heavily bureaucratised; would restrict the cooperation with local groups on pressing issues; and would stop some campaigns because of organisations passing the cap (which is roughly about £800 per month per constituency). The Bill would have major effect on the way society is organised.
Recently, the government has waged a wave of public sector cuts which were met with protests and issue-related campaigning. The Bill is in effect restricting the involvement of any registered non-party groups in such campaigning.
And of course, it would be utterly impractical for the Electoral Commission to censor the social scope or money spent in every campaign. As the Guardian writes suggest, it is just an auxiliary bill (towards a broader vision of transparency and democracy) which has good intentions. Indeed, the authority may not necessarily censor and police all political campaigns. But it has the legal right to do so as the Bill has now become a law.
This is to say that there are the means to censor and punish the newly defined ‘wrongdoers’. And this changes quite a lot of things. It brings fear of wrongdoing in the campaigns of charities, unions, NGOs and community groups- all those activists which have brought significant changes to the society. And through this fear these campaigners are already being punished collectively.

Disciplining social activism

The French sociologist Michael Foucault analyses the prison and the role of the panopticon in disciplining behaviour. The panopticon is a particular design of the prison with policing power located on a tower which projects light into the cells of prisoners. The interesting thing with this power is that prisoners expect to be watched all the time which then affects their social behaviour. There may be no one behind the projecting light, yet the power is being fully exercised. The knowledge that someone has the power and the possibility to police shapes one’s actions even if there is no policing body per se. Thus, when administering regulation the more disciplining factor is the knowledge that someone has the right to scrutinise your social and political actions. This changes the social activity of both ‘the campaigner’ and the embodied and discursive pillars against which the campaign was organised. The campaigner acts in the boundaries of uncertainty and fear in going against the law, while the other could decide to exercise punishing actions at any (strategic or not) time.

This law may not be a direct prohibition of any social action but under the veil of democracy it cannot take any more extreme form on gagging. The restriction to speak out and organise is becoming a law.

So, is this blog legal?

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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