Tuesday 5 November 2013

When the Koch Brothers land in the UK

I have gained a bizarre insight into the strange regulatory world about what you can say as a charity or a community interest company (CIC), mainly because I have been helping to launch a new mutual think-tahnk, the New Weather Institute.

Here is what the regulations say about political activity by CICs:

"The promotion of (or opposition to) changes in the policy of a governmental or public authority in relation to any matter is not allowed."

But in case you get too over-excited that this is a 'gagging clause', as the internet campaigners 38 Degrees might put it, you scroll down a little further and find this:

"Any political activities in which CICs do engage should be closely related to the non-political community benefit activities which they are set up to carry out."

Now, is that a contradiction or just a paradox?  I don't know, and I need to know, but for the time being it tells me two things:

1.  The regulations about semi-political activity and what CICs and charities can say in public are already tangled and confused, have been so for years, and - hey! - I'm not even intervening in an election campaign.

2.  The storm which 38 Degrees has drummed up about the Lobbying and Transparency Bill now going before the House of Lords today is ridiculously off the mark.

I say this partly because I find 38 Degrees increasingly irritating, and partly because the Bill is not - despite what they are saying - changing the contradictions about third-party political campaigning, or about political campaigning by charities, which have been for the last 13 years confusing and confused.  

All they are doing is lowering the spending limits for people, organisations or oligarchs who want to intervene in elections.

Now, it seems to me that two reforms are urgently needed here.  First, we need to close the loopholes that allow billionaires and oligarchs like the shadowy Koch Brothers in the USA to spend money intervening for or against candidates in elections.  It has hardly happened yet, but it will - probably over something like Europe, immigration or abortion, probably in a handful of marginal constituencies.

The other reform we badly need is the converse of that, to prevent billionaires getting around this legislation by giving vast sums to political parties or setting up their own.

The Lobbying Bill tries to do the first but not the second.  It should do the second, but the fact that it fails to do so does not take away from the fact that we need to close the Koch loophole urgently.

I don't understand why 38 Degrees has drummed up such a storm against such an urgent reform.  Because once Koch UK has landed here, it will be far too late.

I know the campaigners say that the new law will confuse matters for campaigners.  It won't: the law is already ridiculously confused and needs sorting out, but the Lobbying Bill won't make it any more so, and it is disingenuous of 38 Degrees to pretend that it will.

The real question we need to ask them is: why don't you want to legislate to stop oligarchs intervening in our elections?  I don't get it but I do hope the Lords have the guts to ignore 38 Degrees and pass the Bill this afternoon.

No comments: