The Conservatives' dangerous game on charity lobbying

Michael Harris /   June 29, 2015 at 8:39 PM 2,371 views

The Tories are running a campaign seeking to intimidate social welfare charities and left-leaning think tanks in the run-up to the introduction of the new lobbying rules and in advance of next year’s general election. The question is whether it will backfire on them. The chances are that it will – but not before damage is done to democratic freedom of expression. This post and tomorrow’s post examine why. The campaign has been going on for a while, but has ramped up recently. An article in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend – ‘Tory MPs have attacked a “revolving door between charities and the Labour Party”’ – splashed on the ‘exclusive’ news that 11 of 25 special advisers to “former Labour MP Gordon Brown” [sic – he was also Prime Minister] now work for charities or think tanks, and claimed that these organisations are “being used by Labour supporters to get Ed Miliband into Downing Street”. So – in what was a poorly-written article supposedly by the Torygraph’s ‘Senior Political Correspondent’ but presumably scribbled by a summer office intern – we learnt than less than half of former SPADs have taken up jobs in policy-related organisations since working in government, which is only surprising in being so low. (The article added to its stunning revelations by noting that “Six out of 50 of the UK’s biggest charities employ officers with links to Labour or the Liberal Democrats”). Of course, the real reason for the article was to share a selection of semi-threatening quotes from Tory politicians. Charlie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover and Deal, was quoted as saying: “There is clearly a revolving door between charities and the Labour Party. This is warping the independence of the third sector and needs to be addressed.” (This seems to be a recycled quote from the Daily Mail, but never mind). Chris Heaton-Harris, Conservative MP for Daventry, was quoted as saying: “People will stop giving if they think that their money is being used for political purposes. It is a challenge to the Charity Commission to ensure that does not happen.” In an opinion piece in the same paper, Chris Grayling, the Justice Minister, also attacked campaigning organisations including some charities. Grayling singled out 38 Degrees as “an anti-government pressure group” and part of “the Left’s campaigns and propaganda”. He wrote – rather giving the game away – that: “We have a big challenge ahead if we are to win the next election. But we must remember what we are trying to beat. …It’s about resisting a mentality that would do real damage to our country. It’s one held by the kind of people Ed Miliband has shown time and again he can’t stand up to, whose demands you’d end up footing the bill for. These are the people trying their best to get him into Downing Street.” Grayling has previously told charity audiences that they put too much emphasis on campaigning, and last year attacked the “professional campaigners of Britain” in an opinion piece in the Daily Mail. He said professional campaigners were “growing in number, taking over charities and swarming around Westminster”. For the record, 38 Degrees isn’t a charity – it’s a registered company. Since launching in 2009, 38 Degrees has received some money from charitable trusts and foundations, perfectly properly, but now it’s funded entirely by small donations from its members. It also publishes details of any large donation over £7,500 from any source in its annual accounts (it received no donations above this threshold in 2012-2013). We’ll come back to the issue of transparency in tomorrow’s post, but for the moment let’s just note this: no supporter of 38 Degrees could possibly be confused about its role and purpose, since it’s a campaigning organisation exclusively and because 38 Degrees’ members get to set its agenda and activities. For an ‘organised conspiracy’ it’s a remarkably open one. Previously, Conservative MP Rob Wilson had complained that the Family and Childcare Trust, a child care charity, had posted a series of tweets with the hashtag ‘#childcarecrisis’, which had also been used by Labour Party (the charity was subsequently cleared for breaking charity rules). In January, David Davies, Conservative MP for Monmouth, objected to an invitation from Save the Children to a House of Lords reception on education as ‘politically motivated’ and an attack on the government’ (Tory MPs are obviously quite a sensitive sort). In 2012, Conservative MPs including Douglas Carswell and Brian Binley had been equally upset by a Save the Children appeal to help Britain’s poorest children. This summer, Conservative MPs – including Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Charlie Elphicke (again) – reacted to a ‘disgraceful’ Oxfam campaign about hardship in Britain. Conor Burns, Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, wrote to William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, complaining about Oxfam’s campaign. Burns was backed by Charlie Elphicke (no surprise there), who told Radio 4’s Today programme that it was “not right” for charities to campaign on political issues. (The Oxfam ‘poster’ – actually a tweet – was to publicise a serious and comprehensive report called Below the Breadline: The Relentless Rise of Food Poverty in Britain, produced with Church Action on Poverty and the Trussell Trust). The previous June, it was reported that Chris Mould, chair of the Trussell Trust (the biggest provider of food banks), had been warned in a private conversation that the “Government might try to shut you down” because its campaigning on food poverty. It was suggested that this threat was made by the Conservative MP Andrew Selous, the former parliamentary private secretary to Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, though Selous denied this. Whoever it was, Mould admitted that the charity decided to become less vocal about food poverty in the wake of the incident. Back to this summer, and following the publication of their Condition of Britain report, Charlie Elphicke (who else?) sent a complaint about IPPR to the Charity Commission, saying the report is essentially a “donation in kind” to Labour. (The Commission is now apparently ‘informally investigating’ the IPPR). The Tories are apparently shocked to have discovered that left-leaning think tanks might tend to focus on issues such as welfare, poverty and inequality, and that charities that work on such issues also might have something to say about them in public, and to the government of the day. We could surmise that all of this is about trying to distract from the Government’s own local difficulties with ‘independent organisations’, but this would be to miss the bigger picture. The upcoming general election is likely to be close. The Tories will want a focus on the ‘recovery’ (which is certainly not being shared by all) and to re-emphasise their ‘dividing lines’ with Labour, especially over welfare policy. So of course, it makes sense to target charities and think tanks that regularly focus on welfare, poverty and wage inequality, and which might, in the course of an election campaign, easily derail a carefully-crafted daily message grid. The Tories want to shut down what they see as the ‘politicisation of poverty’ – as if inequalities in wealth and power can ever not be political. That’s not the full explanation of course. In less than a month’s time the Lobbying Act (formally the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014) comes into force. Passed in January this year, the Act establishes new rules for how charities and other organisations are allowed to campaign in the lead up to national elections. The new rules will come into force on 19th September and will last until polling day, 7th May 2015. Already, and controversially, the Act has had a chilling effect, in part from the confusion and uncertainly it creates around what is and is not legitimate campaigning activity. Charities in England have to register with the Electoral Commission if they intend to spend more than £20,000 on ‘regulated’ activities within the specified period prior to the election. An activity is regulated if it is intended to affect the chance of electoral success for one or more political parties or candidates. The rules will generally not apply unless an organisation is regarded to be intending to influence the public, but an activity can still be regulated even where a party or candidate in not mentioned explicitly. In July, the Electoral Commission released 292 pages of guidance for ‘non-party campaigners’ to explain how the new rules will work, but for some this has caused further confusion. Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, has criticised the guidance as “incomprehensible” and the Act as “censorsing charities”. Such confusion is undoubtedly helpful for the Tories’ objectives. Charities will – are already – thinking twice about their entirely legitimate and important campaigning activity. (Relatedly, there seems to be a parallel campaign – again involving Priti Patel, now a Treasury minister responsible for charity tax and finance – being conducted on charity executive pay, and the Charity Commission is also consulting on proposals which would require charities to declare campaigning spending and government income in their annual returns). The Government’s response to all this is the equivalent of the ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide…’ argument often used in relation to measures which erode civil liberties. David Cameron has claimed that ‘few charities will be affected’, which begs the question of why go to all this bother. The Tories’ campaign against many high-profile charities rather suggests otherwise. It’s saying that they have charities and think tanks in their sights, and now they have legislation to back up the threats. They’re sending a message, and the reaction among charities suggests it is being received as they intended. Tomorrow we’ll note the four hypocrisies in all this that could come back to hurt the Conservatives. For the moment, let’s note that the Lobbying Act and the obviously coordinated parallel campaign by the Tories to silence those organisations that might challenge their agenda is the Section 28 of today’s politics – pernicious, disingenuous, and ultimately (hopefully) doomed to fail.

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