Do you know what a “consultant lobbyist” does? If you don’t, you need to do some homework, as the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act of 2014 (or Gagging Act, as it has been fairly labelled) is now the law of the land. A consultant lobbyist is someone who engages in lobbying activity on behalf of “a third-party client”. Lobbying activity is to be interpreted as attempts to influence political decisions by informing and trying to persuade ministers, top civil servants and so on about a contentious policy issue. In a democracy everyone is a consultant lobbyist, in that all citizens are free to influence political decisions by expressing their views on public policy. Further, they participate in public debate not just in their own interests, but on behalf of “third parties”, meaning the millions of other members of society. Sure enough, many low-level political exchanges (at dinner parties, on Tube journeys and so on) are tittle-tattle or gossip. They can hardly be characterised as meaningful lobbying, even if they comprise “public opinion” and do affect election outcomes.
But sophisticated research, analysis and opinion polling from think-tanks and charities also play a role in policy thinking, and most of this body of work is undoubtedly intended to benefit other citizens (or “third parties”). Such high-level indirect campaigning may even affect the results of general elections. So what? Intellectual turmoil and debate have long been vital to liberal democracy. Distinctions between low-level political chatter and high-level policy research, and between policy research and frankly political campaigning, can be made. But the different kinds of discussion merge into one another. In a healthy mass democracy where all citizens care about each other, everyone is a consultant lobbyist to a greater or lesser degree. The freedom to debate is indivisible, and when one part of that freedom is denied the whole idea of free speech is in danger.
But the Transparency of Lobbying Act requires certain people who understand themselves to be “consultant lobbyists” to put their names on a register. Once on that register, their conduct is subject to the legislation. The nation has been divided into those who might be lobbied (ministers, civil servants), the new profession of consultant lobbyists, and the rest of us.
The Act then says that, if any of the rest of us is involved in “consultant lobbying”, we have committed an offence. If you don’t believe me, look at clause 12 of the Act. Over the last nine months of parliamentary debate many organisations — charities, think-tanks, pressure groups and others — have expressed outrage about clause 12, protesting that it is illiberal and potentially authoritarian. They are right. Like the press regulation Royal Charter set up after the Leveson inquiry, this is another step that takes Britain away from freedom and democracy.
The government’s argument is that it does not want election outcomes determined by groups with too much money. Their point is that consultant lobbyists differ from the rest of us with our gratuitous tittle-tattle and pro-bono think-tank pamphlets. Lobbyists are different because they are paid by the third parties who engage them. If the third parties have oodles of dosh, politics could become commercialised and corrupted. According to David Cameron and his ministers, the purpose of the Gagging Act is “to clean up British politics” and, more specifically, to stop the emergence in the UK of American-style “Super PACs” (political action committees). Super PACs, which have sprung up in the US since a 2010 Supreme Court decision, cannot give money to political candidates but they can spend unlimited sums on campaigning, including campaigning for or against specific candidates. Like the UK, the US does not have laissez-faire in political activity, and Super PACs must be registered with the Federal Election Commission. So far they have spent over $600 million on various campaigns, and ultimately their expenditure will doubtless run into billions.
But what is wrong with citizens backing up their political beliefs with money? We have here another problem in “the economics of politics”. In the marketplace for goods and services, we spend more on those things we really want. In the marketplace for political ideas and public policies, why should we not be free to spend more on those ideas and policies that we favour most strongly? Should money for political campaigning be brought under bureaucratic scrutiny? Besides, the government’s claim to be concerned only about the purity of politics is baloney. At least one objective of the Gagging Act is to stop the trade unions spending too much money backing Labour Party candidates in the 2015 general election. (And any Tory MP will tell you that, if you ask quietly.)